Saturday, October 29, 2011

Shift happens, or does it?

When I was a girl, my younger sister was a rebel. The third one of us girls to go to our convent school and following in the footsteps of two older goodie-two-shoes sisters, she might have thought it the only way to assert herself.

Every Friday afternoon the head nun wrote a list of Marks beside the names of certain girls on the main blackboard outside the concert hall. Marks gained, black marks given, against a girl’s name for things like application – when you failed to hand in homework; punctuality – if you were late for class; order – if you were messy in your work or dress; and finally, deportment – for rudeness. Deportment was the big no-no.

At the beginning of each week, each girl was given an imaginary shield. A shield consisted of ten points. The idea was to keep your shield for as long as possible. It was rather like the demerit system of points against a driver who breaks the road rules.

Here in Melbourne we can only lose ten points, I think, before we lose our driving licence, three points for speeding, three for driving while using a mobile phone, a certain number for not wearing a seat belt and so on.

At my school we lost one point each for punctuality, application or order, but five points for deportment. In my year nine class one girl once swore at a teacher and she lost her shield instantly. Double marks for deportment.

This particular year, the year my sister was in year nine, she and a girlfriend changed the wording on the black board from ‘Marks’ to ‘Remarks’.

Not such a heinous act I’d say. Even at the time, even in my most self righteous do-gooding days, I did not think it such a terrible crime, but the nuns did, at least the head nun did and once my sister and her friend were discovered as the culprits – you could not hide much in our small school – they were publicly shamed.

They lost their shields, double deportment plus the points they had already accrued for application and order.

This brings me to today.

These are the last days of my youngest daughter’s education. In Melbourne, we have a ritual called 'muck up day', the final day of school, a rite of passage.

Most schools celebrate in this way. The school leavers love it, the teachers shudder. A day when the year twelves, the school leavers run riot across the school. They throw flour, water bombs and put up banners, streamers, balloons. A celebration. They dress up and occasionally harass the younger students, but there are strict limits around such activities.

Schools tend to come down heavily on students who deface buildings, damage property or hurt people. Egg throwing at innocent passers-by in the streets before or after school is discouraged, though it still happens.

At my daughter’s school the girls are told to leave their blazers at home during the final week as a protection against excess laundry bills. The egg throwers are generally thought to be from other schools, not ours, no never. You see signs of smashed eggs on the footpaths and against buildings from time to time during this tumultuous time.

Muck up is the ritual that stands between the completion of their final school year and their exams which are yet to come, and between their so-called freedom after thirteen or fourteen years of school before they enter the next phase.

At my daughter’s school the teachers are fairly vigilant. They clamp down on any activity other than tame projects like dressing up, with threats that if the girls muck up badly they won’t be able to sit their exams at school. They will have to sit them at the dreaded Show Grounds.

Our girls dressed up for a Harry Potter day and divided the entire school into houses and then gave the younger students lollies. In my daughter’s view they were gentle but there have been years, one I remember from an older daughter's time, when each student walking in at the gate was told to hand over one of her shoes.

You can imagine by mid morning the pile of shoes, hundreds of identical shoes, except for size and condition, in the middle of the quadrangle. The hours spent retrieving individual shoes, many of them unnamed. But it was essentially harmless.

This year at Presentation night the week before last, the principle gave a talk on advances in technology, among other things. She told us about social networking and about the way the world has changed for our children. How different it is today and how it will continue to change in unprecedented ways.

She put up a youtube clip entitled ‘Shift happens’. You may have heard of it. A fascinating journey through societal and technological progress over recent years. Our principle had adapted the clip to reflect her concerns

At the words ‘shift happens’ the audience tittered. The principle seemed to give no sign of recognition. Needless to say, ‘shift happens’ is a play on the expression, ‘shit happens’.

This was on the Thursday night. The day before, two girls, allegedly on their own account, had spread yoghurt and sticky stuff around the toilets.

The ‘shit hit the fan’ and the year twelves were told their final year activities could not go ahead. In the end the principle modified her threat to a warning of behave or else...

On the morning of that final day, sometime over the weekend, though it might have happened on the Monday morning itself, someone, some unknown person or persons wrote the words ‘shit happens’ in bold graffiti paint on the windows of the concert hall. The words were as high as a person.

No one discovered the sign until the whole school was due to assemble for the year twelves’ final presentation to the entire school, which traditionally is a comedy presentation for the benefit of all year levels and is followed at 11.30 am by the Leavers Service where year twelves are each offered a testimonial and parents are also invited.

The principle when she discovered the graffiti hit the roof and threatened to cancel the morning. The girls were hysterical and rang their parents.

Staff managed to clean the windows, 'with strong chemicals', the principle said, though my husband reckons they probably only needed Windex. In any case, no damage was done except that of wounded pride, chiefly the principle’s pride. She saw the graffiti as a personal attack.

The point of this long ramble is the degree to which a few words out of place, my sister’s 'remarks' all those years ago, certain unknown persons' message that 'shit happens' can give rise to hysteria that borders on the stuff of wars.

Why are we so sensitive to the written word. And really, over fifty years, has that much changed?

Friday, October 21, 2011

My heart was in the right place

When I was young in my early twenties and first began to work in my then chosen career as a social worker, I resented my youthful appearance. I wanted to look older so that people might take me seriously.

‘I would never go to see someone as young as you,’ my mother said repeatedly. She was then not far from the age I am now, and I can understand her point of view better now than I did then.

Then I thought that my youth should not matter at all. Straight out of university and full of good ideas about what might be helpful for other people, I was determined to make my mark on the world.

From where I stand now, I can look back on this young woman and snigger, but I refuse to do so. My heart was in the right place. It still is for the most part, at least I like to think it is, but I have grown wiser, as most of us do with age, and now I know there’s more to a person than their age, despite an almost universal tendency to judge ourselves on the basis of age, among other obvious things, like beauty, race and gender.

Whenever I meet a person I size them up for age almost instantly. I size them up for age almost as soon as I size them up for aspects, such as kindness or cruelty. Is it the look in the eyes, that comes first perhaps, the curve of the mouth, the set of the jaw, subtle hints of how that person might be feeling towards me, and no accounting for how I might be feeling towards them?

I’m often less clear of the vibes I send out. I tend to think they are invisible and that only I know about my internal world, but I know I am wrong in this. At least to some extent.

We all give off vibes to one anther and they travel in both directions. ‘Projections’ is the technical term and of course it all goes back to Freud and his followers, as most of these terms do, though people often want to discount Freud’s work these days.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a strict Freudian, and there are many things Freud said that have long troubled me, like the suppression of the seduction theory, and his patronising attitudes towards women. But he was a man of his times, Sigmund Freud, and we must not judge the past by present standards, though I often wonder, how else are we to judge them?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

My mother: an anemone buried in the sand.

St Columbs church near the corner of Launder Street and Burwood Road looks like something from a BBC period drama. Dark grey flat rendered walls with an elaborate edging. A protestant church to be sure. It sits in the shade of Swinburne university, a lego block set of buildings put together as if by a three year old.

Is that why I felt uneasy going inside? I had been there once before many years earlier in my twenties for the funeral of the mother of a friend. I felt then as though I was sitting inside what I imagined to be a Quaker church, bare benches, no kneelers, stark white walls faded with age and minimal mosaic work on the high barred windows. The shape of a church but none of the trimmings of the Catholic churches of my youth.

It held nothing of the sanctity of a church to my mind, and seemed better suited as a meeting place.

I had decided to go alone. I had decided to arrive unannounced. I had decided to make myself enter this church where I would know no one.

I could be anonymous I thought then and see myself through the eyes of others: a middle aged woman, slight build, average height, broad Australian accent, educated perhaps, diffident perhaps, but someone without a visible past, without a history, someone whom people might puzzle about.

I knew that I too would be faced with the mystery of these people.

The woman who sat to my right did not turn to introduce herself to me as I had imagined she might. I had imagined from my childhood memories that people might greet one another like this, like the handshake or kiss of peace in Catholic churches, but then I remembered the anonymous bit.

Privacy is important. We were there on business. We were there to deal with the alcoholism of a parent, a friend or a relative. We were there to develop detachment.

‘Detachment’, that accursed word, my mother’s favourite and with it she once learned to leave the rest of us out of the equation.

She had needed to do so for her sanity. She had needed to remove herself from the life she then lead, to put herself, if only in her mind and imagination, into some other safe place, some place where my father could not reach her, some safe place where my father could not hurt or impact on her in way way. And in so doing she excluded the rest of us, her children.

My mother had needed to develop detachment in order to become more like her husband. Just like him, she could cut off her pain, he with alcohol, she with detachment, a cut off manner, an inward seeking, like an anemone buried in the sand.

You could not know the anemone was there until it raised its tendrils. Just the slightest touch to those tendrils and the anemone disappeared again. My mother’s eyes glazed over, like a shut down anemone.

As I looked around at the women in this strange protestant church I could see my mother’s eyes in them.

No wonder the woman who sat beside me, clutching her black handbag on her lap, tugging at the skirt she wore to better cover her knees, no wonder this woman did not turn to introduce herself to me. She had developed detachment, or so I imagined. But then it was possible that this might be her first visit to this place too.

She, like me, might have been a new person in this dank church.

I felt my feet flat on the floor and curled my toes inside my shoes to better connect with myself. The muscle on my right shoulder above my breast plate, the muscle that
I would imagine was my heart were it on the other side of my body, tore its painful way across my chest and, once again I thought, if I can get through this, I shall go to Pilates.

Friday, October 14, 2011

My mother is an alcoholic

I could not understand what we were doing there. These dark draughty halls that you entered though equally dark corridors, the windows covered with thick drapes that scarcely let in any light from the setting sun. We had arrived straight after school. No time to get out of our uniforms. No time to do anything but drop our bags and my sister had us back on the bus, onto the train and into the city.

‘Room 6A,’ my sister said over to herself as she led us though corridor after corridors checking at each door for the right number. I knew we must have found it when we came to a room whose door was open, wide open such that we could not even see the number and filled with people.

I say filled, half filled perhaps, people seated in chairs, mostly young people, and children my age, lined up in rows, each with their backs to us as we walked in behind them and took our places in the last few chairs still vacant.

I could not understand what I was doing there, the youngest of my four siblings to come along. I had not thought to ask my sister why we were there and what we had come for. We would be safe with her and my brothers sat on either side of me their knobbly knees white at each bend.

‘Welcome,’ a woman said to the room and people stopped their chatter and looked to her expectantly. ‘I see we have a few newcomers.’ All eyes turned to the back to look at us. They looked at us with inquisitive eyes, no smiles more curiosity as if to say, and what brings you here, what are you here for?

I would not have answered such a question if anyone had directed it to me. At that moment I could not understand what I was doing there.

‘We have quite a deal of business to get through tonight,’ the woman said. All eyes turned back to face her and we were left once again facing a montage of backs, hunched shoulders, cardigans draped over chairs, and the hush of expectation. ‘We might start with your stories. Damien, would you like to start?’

There was the scraping of a chair against the hard parquetry and a boy not much older than my older sister stood beside the woman in front and looked at us with a nervous expression on his face. He looked as though he had been caught unawares, as though he was wholly unprepared for this position which he had now taken up in front of us in the draughty room above the clocks at Flinders Street station, but he cleared his throat to speak.

My name is Damien,’ he said. ‘My mother is an alcoholic.’ Damien told us then about his life as one of three children, born to different fathers and each living each day with a mother who drank all day long and in between drinking she slept or ranted. ‘Sometimes she hits us,’ Damien said, ‘but it doesn’t bother me much any more. She’s not strong, and now I’m bigger I just push her away. But the two little ones get scared. And she used to hurt me bad when I was little. She used to make me cry.’

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Mad Hatter's Tea Party

There is a pattern to today’s date when written in short hand form, 11 10 11, that appeals to me. Numerically challenged though I may be, I can still enjoy patterns among numbers, in fact when I see them as they apply to the day’s date it gives me a delicious feeling, as if it hints at the possibility that today will be a good day.

A good day for a four year old grandson’s birthday, a good day for standing in a park filled with friends, among indigenous plants and grasses, within the inner city, and soaking up the first of the sun as it makes its way out from behind the clouds of yesterday’s rain.

Speaking of yesterday, I went to a workshop on creative dreaming. The contents of the workshop belong to the workshop but it’s safe for me to say I found the day ‘liberating’.

That’s what they say isn’t it? That something can be liberating. That something can free you from your earlier preconceptions, from previous assumptions about your world, from old stereotypes and leave you in a new place.

There were nine of us in this group, a telling number for me. Anytime I am in a group of nine I am back with my eight siblings, but this group to me was all the more remarkable because it consisted of six men and only three women, including one of the facilitators.

In honour of my new found and clumsy determination to break up the text with images, I include a photo my family of origin before my youngest brother is born, including my mother and minus my father, whom I imagine took the photo.

Usually the groups to which I belong in the literary and psychological world are dominated by women, with maybe one or two men, if you’re lucky.

I have not been in such a male dominated group for as many years as I can remember, perhaps not since I was young within my family where my five brothers and father outweighed we four girls and our then mouse-like mother.

My brothers, I suspect, would not consider that our mother is mouse like, though to me in those days she was.

In this workshop we explored the creative potential of shared dreams, dreams people brought into the room, mostly remembered from the night before, which they offered as a sort of oral space, against which others might bounce thoughts from their own dreams or other ideas, from music, from poetry, from memory, from the technological world, from whatever may have occurred to them.

After the morning's session we were left to our own devices with Texta colours and butcher paper and sequins and glue and magazines for cut outs and collages and scissors, of course, and one man brought his guitar with the help of which he composed a song, and another wrote a poem, and others drew images that on the surface of it may have seemed obscure, however arresting, but under our freewheeling, emotional and associative group eyes they all came to life as filled with meaning.

It was a day riddled with uncertainly, beyond the basic framework of group activity times. There were no rules, there was no demand that we intellectualise, that we interpret meanings, that we outsmart one another with our wit and cleverness.

It was not a therapy group. It was not a writing group. It was not a reading group. It was a group such as I have never been in before. Non-competitive, in so far as such is possible.

I come from a long history of 'sophisticated' therapeutic groups where from memory the tension is high and members often wait to pronounce judgement on one another’s crazy thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

Now that is probably not a fair reflection of good group work but it sticks in my memory.

I was once in a therapy group – this when I was still young – led by an esteemed psychoanalyst, which I have since likened to the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Such were the unwritten rules that governed our behaviour and the conduct of our leader who said nothing most of the time, not by way of introduction or departure – a traditional analytic approach in those days perhaps, but nevertheless one designed I think to leave him in a powerful position.

The analyst's occasional pronouncements were invariably directed at the group and I sensed that he saw himself as outside of the group. As if he were a puppet pulling invisible strings and we were the puppets, knowing little if anything about why we behaved as we did but behaving accordingly.

But yesterday’s experience was different, with two facilitators, a man and a woman, and both, to my mind, particularly the man, prepared to share their most heart-felt experiences in order to allow for what I can only describe as a creative dialogue that then led us into creative activity.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

I am a travel wowser.

The rash began as a series of red lumps on the lower half of my legs and because I woke to it on the first day of our holidays away my son in law who was spending some time away with us became convinced it was caused by bed bugs.

We spent only three nights away but for two of them from the onset of the rash I lay awake imagining the mites digging into my flesh. No one else was affected. In those first few days the rash seemed minor and I decided that as soon as I arrived home it would all clear up in the absence of those bugs. But it did not.

They say it is not uncommon to go on holidays and to get sick, as if your body, which has been driving you on for days, weeks and months decides at last now is the time to collapse.

I cannot say I am sick. I am well enough through it all but the rash has spread further up my legs and onto my arms, and even into the little nooks and crevasses of my body where it itches away and refuses to let me sleep.

Last Tuesday after our return I visited the chemist. Our regular chap is away on holidays and his fill-in thought the rash did not look like bites. He offered me antihistamine and a light steroid cream to help heal the itch.

Another day passed and the rash grew worse so after Googling one night and changing my diagnosis to folliculitis I took my self to the doctor. He agreed with that diagnosis and decided a dose of antibiotics should do the trick. He suspected that I’d had a virus somewhere down the track, certainly unbeknown to me, and these sorts of folliculitis things the doctor said can flare up when your immune system is compromised.

It’s possible, he said, that you had a tiny nick in your skin and the bacteria, which lives on the surface of your skin and gives you no trouble at all sneaks in and starts up a chain reaction.

Fine, antibiotics I thought that will put an end to it, but two days later and the rash was worsening, so back to the doctors and this time he suggested a whack of cortisone.

The dreaded cortisone. I have never been on cortisone - or prednisolone as it’s called here - before but the doctor insisted it’s okay to take it for short spells to block what he now considers most likely to be some sort of allergic reaction and probably a delayed response to that damn invisible virus.

My body feel like it is breaking down, at least my skin is, and the worst of it is the itchiness. I can wear trousers and conceal the spots and lumps and bumps. It’s cold at the moment, too, despite the advent of spring, so a cardigan is necessary at all times. I can hide these blemishes to outsiders, but not to me.

This itch is at its worst in the middle of the night. When I'm snuggled up in bed and heat up, the itch comes to life and moves from one part of my leg, to my arm, to my belly and back again. Always an itch somewhere.

I cannot then stop myself from clawing at my skin as the itch moves around, even when I know to scratch at a itch is not a good thing to do. There is always the danger of breaking the skin and making it worse.

But what can I do in the middle of the night? The doctor did not prescribe anything for topical relief because he said antibacterial or antibiotic ointments would probably not touch it, this inflammation is coming from inside.

Sorry to bore you with all this detail but it perplexes me. I know that it will pass. I hope that it will pass, but in the meantime in my own typical fashion I must analyse why now?

What is going on in my life just now to cause this sort of skin reaction?

Your skin is your greatest protection. It seals in your insides. I think of skin reactions as reflecting a troubled internal state.

It’s holidays, although they’re ending now. I am soon to submit my thesis but it’s under control. I will be sad to say goodbye to my thesis. It has been a loved companion these past seven years and of course there’s then the question of what will I do next? This troubles me, but only a little.

It’s not far from the first anniversary of breaking my leg. I’m about to have a routine colonoscopy, you know the sort we all dread. The last time my husband had one of those he wound up with a heart attack. That’s unlikely to happen again, or to me, but still it’s a fear.

Finally, I took on medical power of attorney for my mother last week, a responsibility I share with my older sister and for some strange reason it feels ominous.

My mother continues to survive. She turns 92 next week and I’m apprehensive about how long she can go one. Although, as the woman in charge of my mother’s retirement village says, she’s not palliative yet. She had been but she recovered.

I suppose these are enough reasons to be troubled. Though I am aware of these issues. There must be one hiding away deep in my unconscious of which I haven’t a clue. Worries do that you know, at least I believe they do, and they sneak out when you least expect them and can often express themselves through your body.

I have a tendency to interpret everything on psychological grounds and it does not suit me to put it all down to a purely physiological response. There has to be something more to it. Of course this notion does not sit so well with the notion that one day we will all die. It is inevitable. We will have to die of something and that something could take multiple forms.

Here I go again agonising over the mind body link, trying to put the old Cartesian spilt in place even when I know it does not exist. Our minds are our bodies. Our bodies are our minds and yet I still tend to think of them separately.

Beyond our bodies there’s the environment.

Last weekend in the tranquil Wartook Valley among the shining kangaroos my body let me down, at least my skin failed to hold me in. You’d think I’d grow from the experience. But every time I go away something goes wrong with my body. Invariably I get constipated. I get things like tinea or cold sores on my lip and now this: bed bugs or folliculitis, or an allergic reaction to a virus and that of course does not include the practical issues of possible plane crashes or car accidents.

In some ways I put it down to the experience of being born to migrants. I still sense my mother’s pain at having to leave her beloved homeland. I always imagined that she would have preferred to be elsewhere and it left me with the odd feeling that Australia, my home, was not good enough for her. I resolved over time then that I would stay put and now even short trips away unsettle me.

I am a travel wowser.