Saturday, May 26, 2012

Illicit love

At the moment I’m stuck behind a screen of censorship.  Every thought that pops in I bat away.  Nothing passes the test of acceptability to the audience in my mind.  There are tears in the back of my mind and I know they have to do with an experience I’m not free to write about, and so I look further back to find the meaning behind it.  The feeling is one of rejection, of feeling a failure, of not being good enough, of making a mistake, only I don’t quite know what the mistake is.  I only know I’ve left another person hurt and it hurts me, but I’m not sure how to rectify it or whether I can or whether it will persist in the back of my mind as yet another example of my ineptitude.

Recently in Mark Doty’s blog he describes how difficult it is for him when he cannot write about certain life events, which he would like to draw upon within his imagination as fuel for his writing, but cannot.  The event itself becomes a block to his other writing and before he knows it he is unable to write at all, not a blog, not a letter, not a diary entry.  

Perhaps it is to do with the taboo nature of certain events in their immediacy. 

It’s pointless beating up on ourselves.  It’s useless writing about an experience in such cryptic ways.  But I have to write my way into it and through it if I am to move beyond it.

When I was young in my second last year at school I fell in love with one of my teachers, a nun who had arrived at the school after travelling overseas for several years.  She was younger than the rest of the nuns and more beautiful with elf like features.  She wore fine framed glasses that sat atop her button nose and when she smiled there was the faintest hint of a dimple on one side of her cheeks. 

This nun befriended me as much as I fell in love with her.  She set me small tasks like passing on notes to my fellow students who learned Latin with me.  At my school in the final years of schooling, girls made a choice between Latin or needlework.  Most chose needlework but only a few of us went on to study Latin in more depth. 

I studied Latin because I loved my Latin teacher, this nun, first and foremost.  I studied Latin because in my family it was important to be seen to be academic.  I studied Latin because the thought of needlework sent shivers through me.   All those doilies.  

My favourite teacher the nun became even more important to me when in the middle of the year my younger sister and I were forced to board at school, instead of continuing as day scholars. 

My school.  I took this photo in September 1969, a year after the events I describe here. 

There is a long story behind my arrival at school as a boarder with a suit case of marked school clothes and a dressing gown handed down from the nuns’ store of surplus clothes. 

Boarders tended to be the daughters of wealthy farming families from the Western District and thereabouts.  Boarders were a breed apart, different from the day girls who came from the suburbs around the school.  Boarders seemed superior to me, and consequently I kept to myself after hours in the dormitory.

The feeling I have now, these tears behind my eyes,  match the way I felt at night in boarding school.  My sister and I were given beds alongside one another in the Immaculate Conception dormitory. 

The beds were single with cast iron frames and mesh wire webbing under what in my memory seemed like a kapok mattress.  Lumpy and unyielding.  We went to bed at nine, lights out half an hour later and in between times the girls shuffled in loose fitting slippers to the bathroom to wash faces, brush teeth and visit the toilet.
            ‘Glory be to God,’ the nun in charge chanted as she turned off the lights.  ‘No more talking now.’

And we listened as she shuffled off down the corridor beyond the door that led to what I thought of then as 'no-man’s land', the secret place where the nuns lived and slept. The place where my favourite nun had a bed in a cubicle, which she later told me was no bigger than a kitchen pantry. 

In the beginning of my boarding school experience I did not think about this nun.  I did not think about home and my mother who had been left behind on the advice of my oldest brother who decided that we younger children should be farmed out elsewhere in order that my father and mother be given time to sort out their differences.  Their differences being, at least in my mother’s eyes, my father's alcoholism. 

We told the other girls at school that we had come to board because our parents had gone overseas to travel.  It seemed such a fantastic lie to me, but one that was strangely acceptable.  Not only did it imply that my parents had money enough to undertake such a voyage but also that they were then of the upper class to which so many of the boarders belonged, and yet we were more like the poor kids who lived in Richmond in the side streets near to where the school was located. 

The story starts here.  But there are many other beginnings.  At the moment I'm struggling to find the 'right' beginning for my book.  Until I do, I fear I cannot go on.  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Not for me cold tea. I much prefer it hot.

I'm out of whack.  This morning when I started to make my usual cup of tea I found myself making coffee instead - the whole coffee shebang, complete with frothy milk.  I usually drink coffee later in the day and start off my waking hours with Earl Grey tea. 

Before I realised I was making coffee instead of tea, I had been lost in my thoughts, which is easy to do on a Sunday morning early before any one else is up, including my husband who likes to leave his tea until it gets cold.  Not for me, cold tea, I much prefer it hot. 

Life is feeling too hot at the moment and my head is full.  I wondered as I fiddled with water from the kettle and milk from the fridge, why I did not know the reason behind one of my daughters being up early this morning well before me.  Unheard of on a Sunday morning.  Perhaps she had told me.  And that’s the thing, I can’t remember. 

I can’t remember either what was the question that Helen Garner asked at a conference yesterday, not a writing conference, mind you, but the famous Freud conference, one in which psychoanalytic ideas get thrown around. 

I have gone every year for the last several years to the Freud conference and each time it is a thrilling event, for me at least, not only the topics discussed, but the audience interaction.  The audience interaction is the most amazing of all.  It is one of those conferences where half at least of the audience of around two hundred people know one another, a small conference by some people’s standards but by the standards of the psychoanalytic community in Melbourne it is huge. 

I expect Helen Garner was there for ideas that might filter into her book on the Farquharson case.  The Farquharson affair is the sad story of a man who killed his three sons on Fathers day ostensibly as an act of revenge against his estranged wife. He pleaded innocent, saying that he had lost control of his car through a coughing fit as he approached the water into which he drove with his sons.  He managed to free himself, but not the sons.  The jury would not buy his defense.  Farquharson, as I understand it, after an unsuccessful appeal, is now in prison. 

I write about it all here dispassionately, but it has rattled me, all this talk of homicide and madness.  I could write about it with my academic hat on, but my point here is more related to the behind the scenes experience of being at such a conference, the shiver of anxiety I felt in a room filled with people many of whom I know, some of whom I'm fond of, some with whom I have deeply personal connections, mostly via my work, and others with whom I have no connection at all, and the odd person – I stress odd – towards whom I feel downright hostile.

I’m writing this in short hand and leave you to read between the lines.  It is one of those situations where I cannot be more specific, though I can be specific about this amazing section of the conference where the writer, lawyer and psychoanalytically trained professor, Elyn Saks, who also happens to be schizophrenic, spoke about her life and her wonderful book, The Centre Cannot Hold – also the title of the conference. 

The topic was unsettling but more so the fact that it was delivered via satellite link-up.  Elyn Saks sat facing the screen and what to her must have looked like an audience of bobbing heads and clapping hands.  She sat at a dark desk which was centred in what looked like a conference room or large office.  We, the audience, could see only her and the chair in which she sat, the table/desk in front of her, all in dark office colours, against a huge white board on a white wall. 

It must have been evening time for Elyn Saks at eleven am Melbourne time but she did not seem so much tired as surreal.  That was until she spoke, at which time she came alive, especially during question time. 

Hers was a plea to recognise that people with schizophrenia and other sharply defined mental illness can and do lead successful lives.  One difficulty among many, seems to be that people with severe mental illness are often told to lower their expectations: Go get a job in Safeway or something, once you get over the hurdle of a psychotic episode.  Don’t try to do too much.

When I asked a question of Elyn Saks during discussion time, I felt this weird collision of worlds.  I held the microphone in my hands and faced the screen where she sat.  It was like one gigantic skype session, only with a audience of two hundred people and Elyn Saks alone at the other end. 

My question, more a comment dealt with the issue of separation, which she describes in her book.  How unbearable she had found it when her first therapist in London left her, because she and her husband were moving elsewhere as I recall.  They had to pry Elyn loose.  I know this feeling well and she spoke to it well.

A family gathering from my mother's day, when she was one of the little girls in the front row.  For some weird and surreal reason this photo reminds me of the Freud conference, another gathering of sorts, where the ghosts from the past settle on our shoulders and our futures are as yet unimaginable.   

And here’s a quote from Samuel Beckett, to help you on your way: 

‘You must go on.
            I can't go on.
            You must go on.
            I'll go on. You must say words, as long as there are any - until they find me, until they say me. (Strange pain, strange sin!) You must go on. Perhaps it's done already. Perhaps they have said me already. Perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story. (That would surprise me, if it opens.)
            It will be I? It will be the silence, where I am? I don't know, I'll never know: in the silence you don't know.
            You must go on.
            I can't go on.
            I'll go on.’ 

Before I stop I must acknowledge my good blog friend, Kath Lockett from the Blurb from the burbs blog, and Goofing off in Geneva, who graced me with a Liebster award.  With many thanks, Kath.  

Saturday, May 12, 2012

That one day of the year

There’s a note written on the back of an envelope on my desk this morning.  I remember it now. I wrote it in the middle of the night after waking from a dream.  I have little inkling of the dream, though once I consult the note on the envelope all might be revealed.

Yesterday I went with my mother to visit her cardiologist.  Her heart seems fine at the moment, blood pressure 125 over 70, better then mine.  That one leaky valve seems to have stopped leaking.  Her heart is smaller and functioning well with the aid of medication. 

I mentioned to the cardiologist that my mother had lost her sister recently and he listened patiently as my mother went over the story again, about how she had not expected her sister who was six years younger to die; how it is so much harder when her sister is so far away in Holland; how she could not even go to the funeral. 

I’ve been distracted by a phone call from a colleague asking questions about another colleague and suddenly I feel I am dragged into the mire of politics, which is perhaps similar to the issue of sibling rivalry and all the ugly emotions that get stirred up when families and professions are in conflict.

Enough said, back to my mother.  Earlier in the waiting room as we waited for the cardiologist to materialise my mother mentioned the fact that tomorrow is Mother’s Day. 

I have reservations about this day.  It stirs up mixed feelings. 
‘I’m not interested in Mother’s day,’ my mother said, as if she had read my mind, 'but your brother, F, came during the week with a huge bunch of flowers.' 

My aversion to Mother’s Day must have started long ago when I was young.  My mother told us repeatedly then how she was not interested in Mother’s Day.  It was a commercial ploy to get people to send money, she said.  

I’ve tended to agree.  On Mother’s Day we feel obliged to honour our mothers whether we want to or not.

And for me, even if I wanted to acknowledge my debt to my mother on Mothers Day and my love for her, it would be marred by the fact that the opportunity arrives on this one particular day of the year when someone else dictates that I should honour my mother.

My mother with one of her babies. I've yet to ask if she recognises this one.  It could be me.  For years I've been on the hunt for a baby photo of me.  It's not easy.  This photo is poorly focussed and given my mother has had so many children, she must identify each by extraneous variables - the location of the photo, the dress she's wearing, the time of year.  

I have tried to urge my children not to feel obliged on Mothers Day. 

It was easy when they were little.  Their school might have orchestrated a card or a stall and a small gift, but thereafter the day was as any other. 

As our children grew older and could make up their own minds, they were less inclined to make a fuss in much the way I have not fussed in relation to my own mother.  

My mother has urged us not to bother on Mother's Day and yet underneath I sense her desire that we do so.

Do I want my children to acknowledge me on this special day?  I’m not sure.

The same applies to Father’s Day.  These are days of ritual and perhaps they go further than mere commercialism.  They stir up feelings of ambivalence in some.  For others they might become a way of fulfilling obligations, that one day of the year event.  After that it seems we need not acknowledge our mothers at all.

It is the seemingly compulsory nature of Mothers Day that troubles me. 

And as for the dream: I went into the ‘exterocet’ by clicking on to an arrow that led to the other side of a blog.  In my dream the exterocet was Internet speak for white space.  Terrifying white space.   No one had been there yet.  It was the equivalent of hell.  

On the surface, this snippet of dream makes little sense, but there’s meaning there, if only I can unpick it.  

Saturday, May 05, 2012

As barnacled as the bottom of a boat

In my dreams my skin erupts in patches of green moss or fungal like growths that seem strangely natural in the dream state but when I wake up I am filled with revulsion. 

What is it that has over taken my skin?

Our dog has a warty lump on one of his hind feet between his claws.  The vet diagnoses it with one of those inexplicable words doctors use to describe something with which they are familiar but to me is gobbledy gook. 

To her credit, she then explained that this lump might simply be a wart of some sort or it could be a cancerous growth.  The latter is unlikely in a dog so young.  Whatever it is, it seems to be infected.  So rather than rush off to do a biopsy, which would probably be indeterminate because of the presence of infection, the vet said, it’s better to put the dog on antibiotics.

One large pink pill divided in half, twice a day for ten days. I disguise the pill in a small cube of cheese which the dog woofs down.  So far so good.  The lump seems to be getting better. 

I should call this the week of skin growths, because like the dog I developed a strange growth.   It started only a couple of months ago, this little lumpy thing in between my beasts where the skin is whitest, right there in the middle of my cleavage 

Probably nothing, my GP said, but best to be rid of it.  She did not want to remove it herself from such a delicate location because of potential scarring. Better to take it to a skin specialist, a surgeon.  

Mid week, said surgeon chopped out the growth.  He would have let it be, he said, but he could not quite determine what it was from sight and touch. 

It could be what I call an ageing lump, otherwise known as a senile wart – great terminology, the surgeon and I agree – or a seborrheic keratosis in medical jargon, or a basal cell carcinoma. 

It was neither of these.  The surgeon rang yesterday with results.  ‘Good news,’ he said.  ‘We could have left it but we would not know for sure.’

Mine is a case of Lichen simplex, a benign lesion that erupts on the skin through sun damage, more a dermatological issue, the surgeon said, than a surgical one, whatever that means. 

Diagnosis seems to be the essence of medicine.  Name a thing, categorise it and then decide what to do with it.  In any case the surgeon is pleased with this good news but a little concerned about possible scarring.  That part of the skin there in the chest area has a tendency to over heal, the surgeon told me.  It can become hypertrophic.  It can over-heal. 

If I wind up with a nasty red thickened scar –  a hypertrophic scar – then I must get back to him.  He will treat it with steroid injections and something else, the name of which I missed.

So my dreams have come true. 

I’m fond of lichen, are you?  I’ve always enjoyed the patterns lichen makes on the side of trees or on one side of the roof.  Lichen prefers the side that gets the least sun.  The shady side.  And people have been known to use the appearance of lichen as a direction finder. 

In Australia the lichen grows on the south side.  In the northern hemisphere it’s the other way around.  A therefore useful plant.  But the idea of lichen growing on my skin is worse than the idea of a wart or a pimple.  These hard scaly barnacles, a sign of aging no doubt, but also of what? 

Are you feeling squeamish?  It’s a strange thing, this talk of the body gone wrong, especially on the surface of the skin.

When I rang my daughter from the surgeon’s rooms to say I’d be late home because he was taking off the growth, her immediate response was one of ‘yuk’. 

Nor can she bear to look at the dog’s paw.  I must say I don’t enjoy looking at the dog’s paw either, and now this growth of mine, like something grisly from one of my fungal outgrowth dreams, sends shudders of the uncanny through me. 

You now the notion of the uncanny?  Freud wrote about it.  An object, an experience that is both comfortably familiar and at the same time repulsive.  It has an edge to it, the familiar gone wrong, like snot from other people’s noses and ear wax or craggy growths on otherwise unblemished skin. 

Rough dry lumpy bits that erupt on the surface of our skin  remind us I suppose that we are growing old like crusty old crabs.  I have seen several of these crusty fellows on  my husband’s body and more recently they’ve started to erupt on mine. 

And the paradox is that just as our skin develops dry scaly patches it thins and loses its elasticity.  My mother’s skin at 92 is almost translucent.  

Her skin has become as my skin in dreams when I can see from the outside in, and the surface of my skin is as transparent as glad wrap, or as barnacled as the bottom of a boat.