Saturday, December 31, 2011

Goodbye Christmas

When the rain came crashing down on Christmas afternoon, gate crashing Christmas, we all scurried indoors taking with us the perishables, the things that could not stand a downpour, including the flowers that stood in a line in small bottles in the middle of the table.

We took in the last of the corn bread, the butter the open wine bottles the condiments but left out half empty wine glasses, the water pitchers, serviettes and the rest.

I visited my mother on Christmas day night and drove through more storms, scary in places where I had to slow down to sixty kilometres an hour in otherwise one hundred kilometre zones for fear of what might happen, but I got there, sobolened my mother’s legs and wished her a happy Christmas.

My mother was surprised that I had come thinking the storms would keep me away but I had been determined to get there after our Christmas day visitors, family and friends had gone.

I had done a basic clean up before I left to see my mother but could not get outside to do the outdoor table for the rain. I planned to leave it to the next day. But after I arrived home from my mother’s the rain had stopped, for a while at least, and I took out an empty tray determined to do as much as I could then and there.

I loaded the tray which I had set at one end of the table with glasses, a plate and a bowl, and the left over knives and forks. Before I took the tray inside I began to tip over the outdoor chairs which were filled with puddles and twigs and leaves and the like.

I did not see it coming. The chair closest to the head of the table had supported the tray on which I had placed all the glasses. I whipped it out and watched as the tray turned over and crashed onto the bricks.

It did not have far to fall but the result was spectacular, shattered glass spread over the bricks and into the flower beds nearby.

There was nothing to do for it, no one to whom I might complain. The rest of my tribe were sleeping, collapsed after Christmas festivities or out visiting friends, and so I cleaned it all up then and there. The dust pan soon became mud covered through the cracks between the bricks. Glass splinters everywhere.

It seemed a strange ending to Christmas and as I cleaned I wondered whether at the moment of the crash someone somewhere had died and someone somewhere else had been born. The crash had to mark something I thought. It could not be so random as to mean nothing.

This chook, a Christmas present from one daughter to my husband, looked on unblinking. It is made of metal and did not feel a thing.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The rebel in me

I pulled a muscle this morning somewhere near my heart and my left eye lid is twitching in that awful involuntary way, the way it does when I am over wrought.

Let me not complain too loudly of exhaustion, let me instead remark on a headline I read a couple of days ago. I did not have time or make time to read the article but the headline rang out to me in words to the effect, 'Why Christmas should only happen in winter', as if Christmas in the southern hemisphere in the heat and humidity is an aberration, at least that is how I read it.

A christmas tradition in our house, last years Christmas prawns on the barbeque:

The journalist may have written tongue in cheek but it annoyed me nevertheless.

Christmas is a human construction that began way back, presumably celebrated in places where it is cold in December and yet the nativity setting in Bethlehem has never struck me as particularly cold, at least not by day.

I cannot help myself, I keep rehearsing the days after Christmas, the days when I can settle into a constructive use of my time. Clean out my writing room and the spare room, sort out my tax for the year. Clear the decks in order to leave a space for writing.

For the past couple of weeks all eyes are directed towards Christmas and then in a blink it’s over for another year. Even now I feel pressure to go through the ritual of wishing everyone a happy Christmas, seasons greetings and all of those obligatory gestures, and yet inside something rails against this.

It’s not that I dislike Christmas. It’s not that I do not share in the customs. It’s more the sameness of it all, and yet it’s the sameness, the fact that most of us are busily launching ourselves into a state of frenzy in readiness for Christmas day that makes me want to rebel.

I have known people who refuse to participate. I imagine myself as one of them. I imagine myself into what it might be like during those several hours on Christmas day when the world, at least here in my part of suburban Melbourne, seems to come to a sort of standstill, especially throughout the prolonged lunch when people gather together every ten houses or so with others from their respective clans or friendship groups to celebrate in traditional and non-traditional ways. Here in Australia to be traditional - turkey plum pudding and the like - is to go against the temperature which begs for salads and cold cuts, but everyone, or nearly everyone is at it.

In my imagination I’m one of those who avoids Christmas, whether by choice or circumstance or through something imposed by others. What must it be like?

I wander through the streets alone, aimless. The shops are shut as if it were midnight. Even the twenty-four-hours-a-day supermarkets are closed. There's only a skeleton staff at hospitals and in places where systems must keep on grinding in spite of Christmas cheer.

It offers an odd pleasure this opportunity to stand outside and look in, bitter sweet in some ways, for as much as in my imagination I miss out on the joys of Christmas and there are many, I am also spared the horrors, the tensions, the conflict.

Despite the journalist’s quip that Christmas should only happen in winter, Christmas happens in spite of the physical world in which we live and it will go on or not according to the dictates of people, not the weather.

And in spite of the rebel in me, I wish you all the best of the season, including a happy Christmas, if that feels right for you.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A tear shaped bauble

My older brother untangles my hair with a comb circa 1962.

And then there was the day my father pulled down the Christmas tree. He was drunk as usual and in a fit of rage had ripped the tree out of its pot and threw it to the ground.

A tear shaped bauble, with its silver sprinkles encased in a gold centre, shattered on the carpet. Three other baubles broke in the fall that day, but it was this tear shaped beauty that mattered most to me.

My parents had brought it with them all the way from Holland. My mother had wrapped it in newspaper and cushioned it in a cardboard box alongside half a dozen other baubles, decorations that went back to the early days of their marriage.

These baubles had lasted at least another twenty years until now. I took care not to let the splinters catch on my skin.

This was the Christmas I remember when I could no longer hold to the idea that Christmas was special.

I suspect it happens for most of us in one way or another. There comes a time when our childhood pleasure at the excitement of events such as Christmas, and it need not be Christmas - it could be a birthday or some other celebration - somehow loses its lustre.

I read about Christopher Hitchen’s death on line yesterday and watched an interview conducted in 2010, some time after his diagnosis with oesophageal cancer.

Hitchen's hair was wispy thin across an otherwise bald head and his face had the puffy look of too much medication. But his eyes were sharp and his voice focussed. He talked about the fact of his dying and debated the notion of an after life. The notion of uncertainty.

I often rehearse my own death. What will it be like? assuming I get to know before hand that I am dying. Will I be like Christopher Hitchens, thoughtful and resigned, or will I panic?

These days I think more and more about the limitations of time, and the struggle I have to make the most of it. Make the most of it, I tell myself. Do not waste it.

I have this thing about waste at the moment. I cannot bear to waste anything, food, money, opportunities.

The other day I noticed a hat in the spare room, a short rimmed panama hat. The type that was fashionable for men and woman a couple of years ago. One of my daughters had desperately wanted this hat for Christmas and although it was expensive I had conceded in buying it for her, as it was Christmas.

I cringe when I realise I have not seen her wear this hat, not once. This is not to say she has never worn it. She may have worn it at times outside of my viewing, but it could not have been often. A brand new scarcely worn hat that now sits unused in the spare room and I ache all over again.

I hate to become one of those dreadful whingers but in recent weeks I have become just that.

My husband went off to the country this morning to buy the special Christmas hams he so enjoys at this time of year and I urged him not to buy too much. Last year we threw out left over ham because we had ordered too much and could not eat it all before it went off.

Christmas tends to be a time of excess in so many ways and for some reason this year I want to draw a line on the excess.

A cranky old woman, my daughters say, and perhaps they are right. A cranky old woman who suddenly recognises the passage of time, the finite nature of resources and she wants to scream, let's slow down.

Before the day my father pulled down the Christmas tree I thought of this time as a time of plenty. Every year since I have needed to balance the tension between my desire to celebrate and my need to hold back, to slow down, to resist the consumerist demands and at the same time, to join in the fun.

I am especially glad for my grandchildren, this year. They remind me of how simply delightful it can be to celebrate life, in generosity and good will. But behind the scenes for me there is still the spectre of the smashed and shattered bauble of my experience.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Have you no shame?

Yesterday afternoon one of my daughters dragged inside a potted olive tree from the back yard. We brushed it down to release the spiders and their cobwebs, and then rested the tree on a tray in the living room. This way we can keep watering it during the tree's enforced imprisonment inside over the next few weeks.

My daughter has since decorated it with a few Christmas baubles, not too many or the tree begins to look ugly, at least in my daughter’s view.

A minimalist olive tree to represent the flavour of Christmas.

Is it a feature of aging that I become more and more jaded each year by the demands of Christmas, the demands to celebrate, the demands to buy, the demands to close up the year with good will, when my emotional bucket is almost full?

I could see the same exhaustion in my mother’s eyes when I was young, whenever Christmas came around, that same sense of 'how will I ever keep up with the demands?' And yet my mother relished Christmas more than me, I suspect. She still does.

I must be stressed. The rash has come back, not as vehemently as last time during my holiday in the Grampians in September this year but I can see the raised bumps under the surface of my skin and I am beginning to itch again.

At least this time I have a solution in the form of a quick hit with cortisone and then slowly wean myself off the stuff, but if this rash should come back a third time then I suspect a visit to another doctor might be in order.

The trouble with writing autobiographically, one of the troubles at least, is that it can evoke shame. I start with a thought, but all too soon the inner voices say: Now hold on, wait a bit, what will so and so think about that? How will your daughters read this? And what about those others in your life who might reflect differently on what you write here.

Have you no shame?

I wrote a few words for an online colloquium on psychotherapy recently. ‘I hate to be abandoned,' the words popped into my head and down onto the page. I qualified them with more thoughtful and erudite comments about the nature of our universal fears of abandonment from infancy onwards and then sent them off.

All night long I cursed myself. I tossed and turned. I could not sleep for shame, for fear that certain of my colleagues, most of whom I do not know and will never know – it’s an international colloquium, rather like the blogosphere but seemingly with more at stake, professional reputations and the like – for fear of what others might think of this clearly dysfunctional human being.

Even as I believe others feel this way too.

Why do you do it? I asked myself and then answered my question. To stir things up. All those stuffy voices spouting theory.

Why can’t we write as human beings? Why can’t we write life as we experience it? Why must we always cover up our insecurities in abstract words that protect us and others from the rawness of it all?

‘You can’t say that,’ someone will say. ‘You can’t write that.' Recently I read a review in which Andrew Reimer talked about Joan Didion’s book, Blue Nights , a memoir on the death of her daughter.

I’ve yet to read Didion’s book but it’s next on my agenda. I look forward to it, especially after reading her gut wrenching The Year of Magical Thinking.

I want my gut to be wrenched apart by such honest and breathtaking writing, but Reimer reckons that such writing should not happen. He has ethical misgivings. 'The thought of her buffing and polishing these self-conscious works of literary art for public consumption, for us the readers or perhaps voyeurs, troubles me,' Reimer writes.

I do not share the man’s reasoning. Why ever not write about our grief?
Or does it make him feel ashamed on Didion’s behalf. The way our children might feel when we embarrass them in public or vice versa, when they embarrass us.

At the same time I suspect the tension inside between the wish to write and the fear that our imagined audience will disapprove might facilitate the writing. It's rather like the way in which our optimal anxiety before giving a talk enables us to present our talk in a lively and engaging way.

Oh, but it makes me feel sick in my stomach every time I worry about my imagined audience when the fog of shame descends.

All I want to do is to run away and hide, and a Christmas olive tree is too spindly and light of leaves to offer much by way of camouflage.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Guilt like a dead fish

My mother takes Nulax for her bowels. She keeps the Nulax on top of her fridge. A rectangular lump of compacted dried fruit that tastes like jam but is barely chewable.

‘I cannot think you need to take it,’ my mother says to me.
‘You are young. Your bowels are good. But mine, mine are stuck.’

Years later a kinesiologist looks into my eyes. His bright light beams and blinds me. ‘You have an excellent immune system,’ he says, ‘ but your bowels are sluggish.’

My mother again, I think. She always manages to get in somehow, inside my system. She slows me down.

How can I purge myself of this woman of the slow bowels and the turgid constitution?

There was a time when I was about fourteen when I decided to join the ranks of all those women who sat around at morning tea and talked about what went into their bodies and what they might do about getting it out.

My grandmother died of cancer, not of the bowel, as you might imagine, but of the stomach. Something got inside her, too, something she could never be rid of.

All the Nulax in the world could not relieve her of her guilt.

Guilt sat in her gut like a dead fish. It stank out her insides and eventually ate away at them until she died.

At seven I was formally introduced to the concept of guilt when I made my first Holy Communion.

And then when I was fourteen I, too, decided I needed to do something with it.

Each day I chewed a wad from the Nulax pack. The fig seeds stuck between my teeth. The apricot pith coated my tongue.

I chewed to moisten, but to swallow the stuff was like swallowing a cow.

I could not get rid of my guilt.