Saturday, November 26, 2011

The human heart in conflict with itself

There is a corner in my study which reminds me of Africa. Perhaps it is the mock African mask one of my daughters made when she was young. She took a plaster cast of her face and attached sparkles and feathers.

My bookcase, too. From time to time I look at it. My books are like disassembled islands from across the world. There in the top left hand corner I have collected my dictionaries, the French, the German, the Latin and Dutch. The words in these books take me elsewhere.

When I wake in the morning and look out through my window I see into the side of an English country garden. The roses over the side fence cascade down to the overgrown arum lilies that populate my garden beds.

The rug in my writing room is Turkish, not an authentic artefact, an imitation, a copy. I could not bear to have an original in my room. All that expense, but I duplicate the image. All those gnarled fingers weaving threads through looms to create symbols of their culture.

I have a book in my bookshelf, bought at half price from a second hand booksellers, Honour the Shadow. It tells the story of death in photographs. Dead bodies dressed up as though still alive.

When I look at the photo of my mother’s dead baby, I see her white skin, her dark hair, the line of her eyelashes over her cheeks like the fringe of a shawl, almost moving but still.

She is there, this dead baby sister, in my album, along my bookshelf and whenever I see her image afresh I travel once more in my mind to her grave in Heilo in Holland. They buried here there in this tiny village where she died at five months of age, far from home. The war, no food. My mother travelled on foot to the outlying towns to get milk but she was too late.

Why not me? Why not the rest of us, her babies? Why not now?
Endless questions I write as I travel through the rooms of my house on my journey of exploration through the world of my memory and imagination.

Forgive me. I am not geographically bounded. I slip from one country to another. In the kitchen I travel to Mexico in my cookbooks and to South America. China is my Buddha and the lucky money chain that hangs above the glass cabinet. I bought it in Warburton and hung it there ten years ago . I touch the red webbing that forms the lanyard holding it in place and wish for luck, luck and wealth and prosperity.

We keep a stone Ganesha on the mantel piece for the same reason. A gift from a friend who travels through Asia, he bought the elephant god to encourage success. I stroke the sandstone back of this statue in honour of my journey, and for luck.

Luck is everywhere. It lies in the droppings of a small bird that lands on you by accident. Did you know that? A piece of bird mess is an auspicious sign. A misfortune that becomes a sign of success. Of all the places in the world, of all the people in the world on which the bird might leave its trace, it choses you. You are the chosen one.

You are such a Pollyanna, always playing the glad game. But I do not know who I am. I will not know until I die when I will become a finality. All will be concluded then and I can get to the end of my journeying.

They say as you get older you become less acquisitive. You give things away. My friends talk of getting rid of their books. Books take up too much space. Besides you can read them online, keep them on memory sticks, on e-books. No need for all that paper.

But I am not ready to give up my books yet.

The jigsaw puzzle of my world the world through which I travel in my mind is fractured, lop sided, in pieces. I cannot hold a thought together. The smell of musk that rises through the cracked paint work in my house calls forth the ghosts of another time, of other times, other journeys. And mine becomes ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’, on journeys too open ended to frame.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Can't you see the connection?

Torrential rain this morning, like a woman who cannot stop sobbing. My eyes are tired from the wakefulness of being on the alert till 3.30 am for the return of my youngest daughter who has finally finished her exams and spent the night on the town.

Now she is eighteen, now she is an adult, I must relinquish my authority over her. I can urge, cajole and encourage but I can no longer insist.

I have no more children now, my children are all adults. Not that they are in many ways in any less in need of my attention.

All week long I have wanted to write the story of my most recent visit to my mother. It comes to me now but I fear I cannot do justice to my sense of it, however hard I try.

These days my conversations with my mother have a repetitive feel. We have established a rhythm to my visits. On either a Saturday or a Sunday evening, I arrive just as she is finishing her dinner in the dining room. My mother sits at a table with another four women. They nod and smile at me when I walk in. They see me first.

My mother sits with her back to me and I tap on her shoulder so as not to startle her. Then I collect her walker from the car yard of other walkers lined up along the dining room walls and we make our way back to her room along the winding corridor with its burgundy and gold carpet.

My mother tries to keep up with me even as I slow my steps and tell her not to rush. At the last curve of the corridor before her room she takes the key from her pocket and hands it to me. I turn the lock and let us in. My mother flops onto her chair and sighs with the relief of one who is finally safe at home.

My mother loves this room she tells me again and again. She loves the roses which now cover every wall in the outside courtyard. She loves the way the sun rises over the raised garden beds. She loves the way this small courtyard has become her entrance to and escape from the outside world.

When she is settled I go through the ritual of rubbing sorbolene cream into my mother’s legs and as I spread the smooth white stuff up and down her calves and into her toes, we chat, usually about family. She asks me yet again about my youngest daughter. Is she in her final year at school? The same question every week. She asks after her great grandchildren and wants me to remind her of their names yet again, and of how old they are.

Last Sunday after putting her slippers back onto her feet and removing the last traces of sorbolene from my hands I sat back on the couch to finish my cup of coffee, another ritual of my visits.

The conversation shifted onto one of my brothers, the one who will not speak to my mother any more. He does not want to see her. He is too angry. My mother still speaks to his wife on the phone. They had talked only that morning.

‘He goes just like his father’, my mother said, by which I understand that my brother too has a drinking problem. Just like his father.
‘I don’t understand why they go like this,’ my mother said.
‘Wasn’t he the baby born after the one you lost?' I asked.

I tried then to explain to my mother the notion that it can sometimes be difficult for children who are born after a dead baby. No matter how well intentioned their mothers might be, the mother who still grieves for her lost baby while carrying a live baby in her arms can sometimes convey some of that grief to the new baby, who has a hard time making sense of his mother’s emotional tone.

I did not want to give my mother a potted version of the psychology of replacement babies but I wanted to suggest to her that my brother, who is deeply troubled, is troubled not for simple reasons like imitating his father. Some of his difficulties might stem from his relationship with his mother. Not to blame her, but to encourage some empathy and understanding.

The conversation then slipped from my live brother to my dead sister, the one who died at five months of age during the Hunger winter of 1945.

‘I could not believe she was dead,’ my mother said. ‘I ran to my neighbours. I could not believe it and even later when I walked all the way back home to Haarlem with an empty pram, I could not believe she was gone.’ My mother folded her hands in her lap.

'But I did not have it so bad,’ she said. ‘There were others much worse off than me.’

My mother was on a roll and I did not want to interrupt the flow of her words.

‘There was a fourteen year old girl in our parish. Her father had made her pregnant. Can you imagine? Horrible. He had run off. He had run off because it was against the law. That poor girl. I thought of her and what happened to me seemed not so bad.’

My mother’s eyes stared ahead into space as if she were scrolling through a movie of her memories. I said nothing, but pennies were dropping.

‘I thought too about that girl’s mother,' my mother said. How could that mother live with herself?’

My mother asked this question but she did not seem to want an answer, or even a response.

I sat there dumbfounded, with one thought only:

That mother is you. That mother about whom you wonder is you. And that fourteen year old is your other daughter.

Can’t you see the connection?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What did I forget?

I tried to spilt one cortisone tablet into two this morning in order to take in a reduced dosage but the tablet crushed into tiny pieces. I trust it’s not a omen, a bad omen for the day ahead.

The day ahead makes me breathless, so much to do that even now settling down to write seems excessive. I have no time. I must clean out the kitchen in readiness for my third daughter’s birthday party tomorrow. I must wrap presents in readiness for my youngest daughter’s birthday dinner tonight.

Two daughters turn significant ages in the space of a week, one an eighteen year old at the end of her school life, the other a twenty five year old about to be admitted to practice as a lawyer. Both girls bright and capable, both eager to celebrate and be celebrated and only last week it was my turn.

Birthdays roll along. They are such indicators of the passage of time.

Foul tasting stuff cortisone. I just swallowed the crushed cortisone tablet and had to wash it down with a great gulp of tea and even now the bitter taste lingers at the back of my tongue. It’s hard to be rid of it.

Every so often I think about my thesis and whether someone is reading it and what they might think of it. Whether someone is rolling their eyes in disgust or whether someone else is getting pleasure out of it.

It’s a strange waiting time, not so bad at the moment because it is early in the wait. I imagine in a month or two or maybe more I will start to get anxious with the thought that any day now I will hear the news. But from here it seems too far away.

The sun streams into my writing room so fiercely that I can barely see the screen. Dust motes collect on the glass and even as I wipe them away new ones take their place.

When I am unsettled like this, when the lure of activity comes over me like a rash, all I want to do is get up and about and do all the jobs I have listed in my mind. I do not want to sit here at the computer typing words onto a screen. I do not want to engage with my thoughts. I am on the run, a cortisone induced run perhaps, though I think that may be fanciful.

I have kept the dosage to a minimum merely trying to avoid a recurrence of the dreadful rash that overtook me several weeks ago and appeared to be making a return only a few days ago.

It seems to have settled again as I wean myself off the cortisone.

You need to reduce the dose of cortisone gradually the doctor told me, in order to trick your body into believing that it needs to start producing its own again, otherwise it might shut up shop believing the rush will come from elsewhere.

That’s very much a layman’s way of describing a physiological process and the ways in which the introduction of chemicals can fool your body into believing it need not do its own work.

The phone rings and it’s my mother. Her accent thick over the line.
‘I want to talk to you,’ she says. She sounds breathless. ‘What did I forget? Oh yes, I think I forgot your birthday. I’m sorry. I forget everything.’
‘That’s okay,’ I say. ‘Don’t worry.’
‘You’re so good to me and then I forget your birthday.’
I try again to reassure my mother, to let her know I understand. ‘It’s hard to remember one day from the next.’
‘I’m alright,’ my mother says but her voice sounds broken. It’s just that it comes back to me all of a sudden.’
The conversation ends here after I promise to visit the next day.
‘You’re busy, I know’ my mother says. Now it’s her turn to understand.

My mother when she was beginning to develop a memory circa 1919.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

A reminder of mortality

Only recently have I come to understand why in the Middle Ages, men - for it was then only men who wrote or transcribed books - kept a skull on the top of their desks.

It was a reminder of mortality.

This film reminds me of a state almost worse than mortality, a mind filled with holes. A body that functions without the assistance of a mind. A person devoid of memory.

I tried not to concern myself with the fact that my mother did not remember my birthday for the first time in my life.

She remembers many other things, including the identities of all her children, even if she now forgets our birthdays. I'm grateful for that.

Here is a happy birthday image, grandmother and grandson, taken on the day of my birthday to offset some of the pain of the following video clip, Julia.

To see this video, click on the Julia1926 website, wait a few seconds to download and continue to click each time you want to move on.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

To hell with sugar

Today is my birthday. I bought myself a new variety of yoghurt to start the day in a special way and it tastes too much like the yoghurt I do not like, thick and bitter, too authentic perhaps.

And so I will abandon my birthday yoghurt for the tried and true variety, good old Ski yoghurt, which one of my daughters insists is a bad choice because it has more sugar than other brands.

To hell with the sugar. I know what I like, and I suppose I can add, I like what I know.

I’m feeling narky this morning, which does not surprise me. Given my view that birthdays are special days, the only days on which you are entitled to matter, birthdays are also days of intense sensitivity.

I’m good at celebrating other people’s birthdays, but not so good at my own. I’m not as bad as one of my brothers who shuns almost all reference to his birthday and expects his kids to be likewise disinterested.

I figure if you make a fuss of your children’s birthdays, which we tend to do, then you have to allow them to make a fuss of yours.

To me birthdays have a quality of Christmas to the birthday person, Christmas or whatever other special religious event that marks a day when everyone is to be treated well.

Such days tend to raise our expectations. On ordinary days, on days other than our birthdays or Christmas, and I should speak for myself here, on my birthday, my expectations are heightened. I want it to be an especially good day.

Take my decision to spend extra money on this classy pot of yoghurt as a birthday treat and lo and behold it’s a disappointment. On an ordinary day I couldn’t care less, but on my birthday it’s not supposed to happen. It’s supposed to taste good and it does not.

It’s mango flavoured but I can’t find the mango. It has lumpy bits and I see now from the label that it was best eaten before yesterday.

See how narky I am. Nothing feels right and it’s not even nine o’clock on a Saturday morning.

Birthdays fuel narcissism. I must get off this topic and look to loftier thoughts, like the essay I’ve been working on about voyeurism and exhibitionism. It might be good to reflect here on what I’ve been trying to say.

An image here, as a diversion or distraction, one that relates to my theme, though at a tangent: a photo taken by my son-in-law in Berlin, it shows the back of my husband in an art gallery - a centre for creative voyeurism and exhibitionism - gazing at Elvis as a cowboy.

I consider blogging to be a somewhat voyeuristic and exhibitionistic act. The blogger exhibits herself, her wares, her work, her ideas and the reader becomes the voyeur.

These are not unusual occurrences in everyday life. Why attach such lofty and clinical sounding words as voyeurism and exhibitionism to such activities? What makes them different from the simple act of show and tell which we learn from our earliest days even at kindergarten?

One of my academic heroes, Paul John Eakin, uses the show and tell example, how we learn to tell our stories in childhood, as the beginnings of the autobiographical impulse.

From earliest days we learn to give an account of ourselves. ' My name is Mary and I live in Balwyn with my mother and my three brothers, and our cat and dog...' 'My name's John and I live on a boat with my Dad...' There are of course multiple variations on the theme of who I am.

As we get older our stories develop in sophistication. We learn to get to the point quickly. We learn all sorts of techniques: how to hold back information to create tension, how to provide just the right amount of contextual material to add to the richness of our story, how to give a beginning, a middle and an end. We learn to present ourselves to the world and no one would call this exhibitionism.

So what makes the difference?

I think of the peeping Tom of my childhood, the man who looked in through my window one night after I had crawled into bed. I saw him there peering through the glass. I saw his face, an orb of white in the darkness, and I looked to his eyes but his eyes did not look into mine.

As soon as he had disappeared I bolted to the lounge room to tell my mother. My father was away with his work. My brothers ran down the lane way at the back of our house imagining that they were chasing a peeping Tom. They did not catch him.

To this day I do not know whether the man existed in reality or whether I had imagined him there. But I can still see his face in my memory, the white staring face of a man peering inside, keen to take something in with his eyes. Keen to look.

Voyeurism in psychoanalytic terms has something to do with a desire to get some sort of sexual pleasure without having to do the work of relationship, the scopophilic impulse, and then the exhibition side might be the thrill of tantalising another, using one’s own body to shock and disturb.

Think of the flasher here, the proverbial man in his trench coat on a dark night who waits for unsuspecting passers by, women usually, to flash his penis at them as if to say, here now look at this, see what I’ve got. And the women are meant to quake and shake.

Why is it that of these impulses to show off, these impulses to stare at, some are viewed as creative gestures and others as perversions? Perhaps it’s about degree, though motivation must surely come into it as well.

Why do we exhibit ourselves or peel open the pages of pornographic magazines?

When I was little I trawled through the pages of the art books my father kept at the top of his bookshelf. The sight of naked men and women thrilled me to such an extent that I felt I had to hide this activity from everyone. I stuffed the art book down my jumper and sneaked into my bed room. I pulled the blanket over my head and looked at the pictures by the light of a torch or through a chink in the blankets that let in the light of day.

I felt wicked, wicked beyond belief, both for doing this and, more particularly, for the way it made me feel. All hot and excited inside. The rape of Lucrece was my favourite, the naked woman dragged off a white horse by some man.

In those days I do not think I even knew the meaning of the word rape, but it sounded sexual and the thrill was there.

It disturbs me now to write about these things. My curiosity then, my curiosity now. No wonder these issues get under my skin. These unresolved questions from my childhood and beyond.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


My mouth full of toothpaste, I look into the mirror, at my white pasted lips. The lips of the dead. There is one last job to do before bed. I check the email and there: his words on the machine: cold words, empty words, sterile without feeling.
‘Message received loud and clear,’ I want to write back. Press the return button, send my response, the same empty words, toxic in their simplicity.
But no, I think no. I consider. No, I say to myself, as I sit staring at the screen, wondering over and again, how can I undo this? There must be something more.
If I do not respond there will be another message and then I can explain myself. Ask him to explain himself. Then all will be revealed.
But silence is powerful, I tell myself. Silence will leave him guessing. My silence will ricochet back over him, echoing the hollow sound of rejection in his ears. And he will be left wondering, too.
Did she get the message?
Did she see the words?
On the machine?
Or are they lost?
In the ether?
Floating somewhere?

I can see his head in front of me. It stands high above the headrest five rows in front. He has been to the barber recently and his neck has the clean shaved look of new mown grass. I can see the line where his hair follicles and pink skin meet, a line in the sand. This is the distance I intend to keep between us.
He has not seen me. Of that I am sure. When he came onto the bus two or three stops after mine I had my own head stuck in my book, he would not have noticed me. I only noticed him by chance when I looked up from the pages and saw the back of his head, taller than the rest, and I knew at once, it must be him.
Why would I want to speak to him now, this man who has been so cruel? To give him credit he may not realise it, but he should, and given that he does not realise, then I do not want to speak to him again. I do not want us to walk side-by-side or to sit any closer than we are now, with five rows of seats and people between us.
I do not forgive easily. Why should I? Forgiveness demands something of the one who has caused you pain.
He does not even realise why I chose to sever connections. He severed them first, only he would not see it that way. He prefers a cosy distance or some movement closer from time to time, but always under his control. He makes up the rules, while I have to obey them. And they change. Let me tell you, those rules change, faster than I can keep up with. But I have had enough.
He blows his nose into his hanky. His head moves up and down like a rooster’s head, the tuft of his hair a cockscomb. Then I remember the feel of his hand around my waist, his fingers brush against my cheek, and I am left in a welter of desire all over again. But I must resist the pull.

I went out once with an electrician by the name of Kevin. Kevin was a good-looking young man with sandy coloured hair and a bright smile on his innocent face. A good Catholic lad, his parents had brought him up well: Mass on Sundays, observe the holy days and the sacraments, don’t eat meat on Good Fridays. But Kevin, like all the boys I met in those days, despite, his pious upbringing, was as corruptible as the next.
I fancied myself in those days as a femme fatale. Beware any man who came under my spell. I would ensnare him, draw him into my lair, steal his virginity from him, lure an erection from his otherwise limp body, and force him into a penetrating relationship he could not resist, until finally I would dump him.