Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rejoice with me

The anniversary of my father’s death falls on 27 February. I don’t always remember the significance of this day when it comes around, but this year I did.

From time to time on Monday last I reflected on the fact that thirty years earlier when my first daughter was only ten days old my father died.

Strange then - uncanny even - that on 27 February this year, 2012, I had word in the form of an email, that I have passed my PhD.

Yes folks, rejoice with me. I am a happy soul, at least for the moment until the thrill wears off. After all, one of my motives in beginning this thesis, one of my less noble motives, as I have written elsewhere, was to prove myself to my father, who in my mind did not believe that girls could ever amount to much in the academic sphere.

Boys had the brains, or so my father believed. Girls were good for making babies, keeping house and I dare not spell out the rest. Misogynistic for sure.

But I shall not belabour the point here. In any case, this part of my journey is almost done, and once I wear the floppy hat at the designated ceremony, whenever that happens, I shall be able to use the honorific, too. What fun.

I have spent the best part of my life trying to get over the idea - deep-seated in my psyche - that I am an unintelligent, ignorant soul who cannot think. There are many reasons for this view as I now understand but the little girl in the picture below did not. I have exonerated her. She stands here on the left with two of her sisters, unaware of what the future holds.

Thank you, my fellow bloggers, for all your help. There is a section in my thesis dedicated to you all and to blogging as a form of expression that connects with what I have written about elsewhere and here earlier in this blog as a desire for revenge.

I trembled at my decision to include it. Blogging is not usually considered an academic pursuit, though theorising about it can be.

And so my blog life features in my thesis as do so many other aspects of the autobiographical impulse.

I now feel exonerated in my decisions to write as I have done, experimentally in many ways, at least in a thesis, but those three good people who examined my work were happy enough with the results to give me a pass, accompanied by some useful and positive comments, and some more critical as well. To top it off I don't need to make any changes to the thesis as I submitted it for the purpose of getting my PhD, and this is such a bonus.

Now begins the difficult task of turning my thesis into a book that might be read by others outside of the academy.

The examiners' comments make sense to me, and so I go off on my day with a load lifted from my shoulders. Rejoice for me.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Just doing his job

The young man at the counter seemed pleasant enough, his dark hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. It was hot and we were in a hurry to get home. Last stop the bottle shop to collect a couple of bottles of wine and a few cans of gin and tonic, the UDL brand, the stuff I enjoy on a hot day.

‘Where’s your proof of age,’ the man said to my eighteen-year-old daughter who stood beside me.
‘It’s not for her,’ I said. ‘It’s for me.’
‘It doesn’t matter,' he said. 'No proof of age, no sale.’
‘But I’m not buying it for her. It's for me.’
‘Sorry, that’s the law. No proof of age, no sale.’

She could have been my best friend’s daughter. She could have been anyone, but because we were together they questioned my right to buy alcohol in the mistaken belief I was buying it for her.

‘But it’s for me, not for her,’ I said again.
‘It doesn’t matter. It’s the law. I could get fined $6000.00.’
‘It’s absurd.’
‘It’s the law.’
‘If I go out now and go elsewhere then come back alone later, will you sell it to me then?’ I asked. My daughter tugged at my arm to leave.
The young man shook his head. ‘Coles Liquorland is over the way. You can go there.’

We left the store. I would have battled on but my daughter was mortified.
‘You re such an embarrassment screeching at him like that. It’s not his fault. He’s just doing his job.’

She’s right, of course. He was just doing his job, but a little too rigidly I fear.

Now I don’t know what to do with my rage. I can’t believe it. It’s worse than having the supermarket staff routinely inspect your bags, as if you were a thief.

Maybe all my anxiety and rage at other things gets puddled into this pool. I am livid. Even as I understand the rules about not selling alcohol to minors. Even as I understand the need for young folk who look under twenty five to have proof of their age when buying alcohol.

‘I told you I didn’t want to go in,' my daughter said to me. ‘You’re such an embarrassment.’

My husband was more empathic. And so we went back later after work to buy said wine and gin and tonic. I saw the young man filling shelves at the back of the shop. I smiled at him. He smiled back. I suspect he did not recognise me from earlier in the day until I said to him that I’d come back, but this time with my husband who was clearly not underage.

I smiled again, in what I thought was a friendly smile, a smile to make peace perhaps. He might have seen it as provocative.
‘I can’t allow you to buy anything within the same day,’ he said.
‘You’re kidding,’ I said.
‘That’s ridiculous,’ my husband said, and called for the manager.

For the next ten minutes we argued with the young man and his manager. The young man had formed the impression that because my daughter had carried those cans of gin and tonic to the counter they were for her. She had no proof of age – she had left her wallet at home – therefore, no purchase.

I can now tolerate the notion that he thought I was buying alcohol for my daughter who had no proof of age, but that he could not then sell me anything six hours later on the premise that I would go home and give it to my daughter continues to enrage me.

The manager in the end let us buy what we had come in for in the belief that we were genuine. But next time, he said, just make sure your daughter has her proof of age.

By the look of things there won’t be a next time, at least not for a while. My daughter is too mortified to be seen in this shop with or without me.

I have not been able to get this situation out of my head. Is it the business of being refused? Is it the stuff of being made to feel guilty or bad? Sure, I have taken it personally, which I need not have done, but it is the second guessing that goes on in such a young man’s mind that bugs me.

Is it the firmness of youth that he should take things so seriously? That he cannot discriminate. The rules are the rules.

The idea that he could not serve me in the twenty four hours following that purchase. How literal must he be?

I do not know how, but this situation has leached into my consciousness and gotten under my skin in a way that I might only understand in the fullness of time.

I begin to feel like a criminal.

Is it because I was buying alcohol and alcohol is loaded for me? My ancestry?
Is it because as a child I once travelled on trains without a ticket and shoplifted lollies from the milk bar? Is the legacy of my childhood wrong-doing catching up with me? Or is it because I am sensitive to rules that have an arbitrary and ambiguous quality?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

War, sex and babies.

One of my daughters tells me I am too inward looking and that I do not engage with the world in any meaningful way. I do not know what is going on beyond a four kilometre radius of my home, she says.

She may be right. I am, as they say, out of touch.

It is hard to put things together.

This is the closest I can get to an image for this post: Mealtime and four cats - the tabby male, the others female, momentarily in harmony.

Today I listened to the radio as I drove around that four kilometre radius of my home, dropping off one daughter here, and shopping there. Food for the table.

When I reached home, I pulled my car into the driveway but did not stop the engine until the programme was over.

A certain Dr Christopher Ryan was talking about sex, but not in the way I’m used to hearing people talk about sex on the radio, not in that nudge-nudge, wink-wink sort of way, or that other, worse still censorious way, where the likes of artists like Bill Henson get hauled over the coals for indecency.

In a nutshell, Ryan talked about the way in which there is a connection between the aggression that gives rise to war and the repression of our sexuality. He cited research that demonstrates a correlation between the length of time babies are held and nurtured along with the amount of latitude offered to adolescents in exploring their sexuality and peaceful societies.

He contrasts certain other societies - which Ryan fears are on the rise - where children are not held for long as infants, nor fed maximally, nor nurtured in warm loving environments and where adolescents are discouraged from expressing their sexuality, with a warrior mentality that leads to war.

Earlier on the radio I had heard a snippet of live footage from a journalist who walked through the streets of Kabul with an Afghani woman to experience first hand what life is like for women there. Apparently the streets are typically filled with men and boys. The number of women outdoors is negligible. Women do not dare to venture out for fear of being harassed and sure enough it happened before the journalist’s very eyes.

The woman he travelled with was grabbed by a man who pulled at her breasts and groped her body.
‘They think a woman on the streets, any woman, is a prostitute,’ she said ‘ and deserves to be treated so.’

Which brings me to my third muddled point. I’ve mentioned before Jennifer Wilson’s blog No Place for Sheep, in which she argues against a political lobbyist, Melinda Tankard Reist who is opposed to pornography and the sexualization of young girls, a laudable concern you might think, but this concern travels hand in hand with Tankard Reist’s religious background which she is apparently reluctant to discuss in public.

Jennifer Wilson’s beef is two fold. She believes that any one who is active as a lobbyist for public behaviour and morality should at least declare their orientation, whether from a religious background, a political background, whatever.

Further and perhaps more importantly, the reason for the brouhaha, Tankard Reist’s lawyers have issued a defamation threat to Wilson if she does not retract her statements. Wilson refuses to be silenced.

Politics and emotions and sex and babies and war all come together and my poor brain cannot tease out the threads in this battle over sexual repression or expression. Can yours?

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

An aberration

In spaces like these when my desire runs whimpering from the room
I cannot write
I cannot read
I can only listen to the thump of my heart against my breast bone
And all I can remember is the gasp and pause of fear
That dark fear that beset me as a child when my father’s voice ricocheted across a room
Do not touch me I say
Do not touch me for I am made of stone or other flint like stuff that repels contact
Do not touch me for I am made of wounds, wall to wall wounds that extend from the top of my shoulder blades down to my knees, my breastplate armour against sensation.
Do not touch me for I will dissolve in your arms and die.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

'The democracy of death'

For this past week I have sat for many hours at the bedside of a dying man. I have sat and watched and waited for this man, my husband’s brother, to take his final breath.

Between us we kept a constant vigil. We sat. We watched over and waited for this man who had never married, who had no children of his own and who apart from his sisters and brothers had few other meaningful associations in the world.

I was not there when he died but his sisters and one brother stayed with him till the end, determined that he should not die alone.

This man had lived the life of an alcoholic, in and out of detoxification centres, constantly on the road, and often in trouble with the law.

I sat at one remove but I was not alone in this. Even his two sisters, who maintained the most consistent and loving presence in his dying days, seemed at one remove, not so far removed as one of his older brothers, who had refused to have anything to do with the dying man on the grounds it was his own fault for the life he had led.

But the other siblings, all four of them, felt differently. They would honour this brother and the parents who bore him however far he had run off course.

A sanitised representation of death from 1959.

It was my own brother who asked me to take the photos. ‘I’m curious he had said. I don’t know what dying looks like.’ Typical of my brother, I thought, this curiosity about the way things work. But I share this curiosity, which I fear I can only feed if I stand at one remove.

When I told my husband on the telephone about my brother’s request, my husband also asked me to take photos. He was overseas himself and could not be there in those last few days.

He, too, wanted to see something of his brother’s dying, but his desire comes of fraternal feelings, not mere curiosity. When my husband sees the photos I expect he will cry.

My sister in law, the oldest sister, sat the longest. She came each morning early with her knitting and stayed late. She knitted a child’s cardigan in bright colours, while her younger sister quilted, stitching together a grey coloured backing onto vivid patchwork.

The oldest brother visited from time to time. This brother was perhaps closest to the dying man, but this brother found it hard to sit and watch as his youngest brother disappeared.

I came to take my husband’s place. I came to help his sisters say goodbye to his youngest brother.

And I told myself it was okay to take these photos. It was okay to provide a record of these last few days for those who could not be there.

My sister in law suggested we take photos of the quilt that lay atop the dying man. Uncanny, this quilt. My sister in law had made a batch of quilts several years ago, which she had given away to charity. One or two of these quilts had found their way into the hospice in which her brother was now dying.

And here in room nine on the bed which they had allocated to him, my sister in law came again across the quilt she had made twelve years earlier. It pleased her to think that her quilt, in soft blues and greys, flecked with red, might now warm her brother as he lay dying.

My sister in law sat knitting alongside her dying brother’s bedside and I clicked my camera trying to capture the essence of this man through his face. My sister in law reminded me of the women who sat beside the guillotine during the French Revolution.

She laughed when I told her this. It made sense to her, watching and waiting for her brother to die, not complicit and yet feeling guilty somehow that her little brother should leave this world before her.

Only one of her other brothers did not visit. He lives interstate, but physical distance was not the issue. He wanted little to do with his dying brother because he was angry.
‘It’s his own fault,’ he said. ‘Look at the way he lived.’

The photos show the image of a man whose face is taut, the cheek bones etched onto skin, a grimace, a look of sadness. The nurses kept him free of pain. The medication was potent. My brother in law was almost oblivious to our presence. His eyes closed, his mouth slack. But I sensed he knew we were there.

I have the photos transferred to my computer screen, images of a dying man and I think of the controversy over Annie Leibovitz’s decision to photograph her partner, Susan Sondheim in her dying days. In the Guardian, Emma Brockes writes about the controversy surrounding Leibovitz's decision to publish pictures not only of Sondheim but also of her dying father, to demonstrate 'the democracy of death'.

How could she do this? people asked. What gave her the right? How could she make public to the world these images of a once proud and beautiful woman, broken down into a body that represented only death and decay? Shocking pictures that haunt the viewer and remind us of our mortality.

How would I feel if such images were taken of me, not simply without clothes as it were, but me without the advantage of skin and flesh and hair and carefully applied makeup – not that I wear much of that these days?

How would I feel?

I cannot say.

Perhaps it is like childbirth, this dying time, when other things matter far more than appearance.

Our bodies become the vehicles for our essence and in our deaths nothing can touch us anymore.

I do not post the photos here out of respect, not so much for the man who is now dead, but to his siblings who live on. Like Leiboviz, I have agonised over this decision, wanting to share the face of death with you, but unlike Leibovitz I am not a photographer. My photos, I fear, do not constitute art.

Saturday, February 04, 2012


My mother wears the tiniest of earrings in her lobes, tear shaped drop pearls or minute balls of precious stones coated in gold and held on thin gold tangles. Even now her earrings strike me as a feature of her aging, her determination to hold onto life and all its possibilities reflected in those jangling ornaments.

My mother did not always wear earrings or any other jewellery for that matter, apart from her wedding ring. She tells the story of how in Holland during the Hunger winter of 1945 a farmer tried to get it from her in exchange for some potatoes. She refused.

My 'movie star mother': no need for jewellery then.

I think back and I cannot visualise my mother wearing a necklace or a bracelet, certainly not earrings. There are no jewels on display in her photographs, no efforts at adorning her body with trinkets of beauty. Nor did she wear much makeup, other than her trademark smear of red lipstick whenever she went out – if only as far as the local shops – and the dusky pink of her compact powder. She dabbed the puff against her cheeks and on her nose, her hooked nose. Aquiline, she said, like an eagle, and a sign of aristocracy.

More recently my mother tells me her brothers used to say she was Jewish because of the shape of her nose, which I too have inherited, though perhaps not quite as pronounced as my mother’s.

It seems odd to reflect back on the meaning of such a taunt in those days, especially given what happened during the second world war.

There is some evidence that there was a Jewish grandmother in my family of the great great variety, going back several years but my mother does not talk about such things these days.

Still I enjoy the idea of hybridity. I enjoy the idea of having all manner of ancestors in my past, all varieties, multiple races.

Purity does not sit well with me. The notion of a pure breed. It feeds our tendencies to see ourselves as superior or inferior for no other reason than the colour of our skin, the shape of our noses, the nature of our hair.

I suppose I could add a touch of madness to the list of inherited tendencies. Not that I think madness is carried in our genes, maybe a predisposition towards it, but madness needs a certain environment in which to flourish. On top of which in the primitive recesses of our minds, in the dim dark corners of our dreams, I reckon we all sport a little madness, and a good thing, too. It adds to the variety and the creativity that make up our lives. Without a quirk of eccentricity, not too much, not too dominant, our lives would be all the more dull.

I was telling you about my mother’s passion for jewellery. Mine is greater. I prefer silver to gold, not just because of the prohibitive cost of gold, but more because of the blue in silver. Blue is my favourite colour. The blue in silver, its watery properties, its potential coldness, they all appeal to me in a way the warmth of gold does not.

I did not always have this passion for jewellery. It came on when I was in my early twenties, when I decided what a thrill it might be to wear earrings that hung free from my ears.

In those days I lived next door to a nurse. She offered to help me with the job of piercing each lobe with a thin sterilised sewing needle. There were not the signs in chemist shops then, signs that touted for business in the piercing of ear lobes. Most people – and there were not so many who wanted or wore pierced ears from my memory – took themselves to the doctor for the procedure, but as in so many other matters to which I take a fancy, I wanted my ears pierced then and there.

It is striking how quickly the pain of an event subsides and disappears from memory, rather like the agonies of childbirth. They say women need to forget the degree of pain quickly otherwise they might not go back for more babies after the first.

My friend the nurse cleaned my earlobes with methylated spirits and she plied me with alcohol. In those days I did not drink much by way of alcohol and my choice of the stuff was limited to the likes of crème de menthe and cherry brandy, sweet and hardly efficacious in the process of dulling pain, but I had taken what today are called shots of creme de menthe and waited to feel numb enough and drunk enough to withstand the pain.

It was over soon, but the nurse drove the needle crooked in one lobe and it forever causes me trouble whenever I try to attach an earring. In later years I had my ears pierced properly with a type of nail-gun in a chemist shop. My memory of that event is one of short and sudden, awful pain.

Why do we do it? Why do we inflict pain on our bodies purely for the sake of what some of us consider beauty? I cannot say. I only know that I would not allow my daughters to get their ears pierced until they could be certain of their capacity to endure pain. And all for the purpose of attaching baubles to their ears,in contrast to my movie star mother who waited until after her babies were born to be initiated.