Saturday, June 30, 2012

An army of ants

The other night as I sat at my computer struggling to write a short story that held none of the promise of my dreams, a small army of ants rushed up to my key board and spread out across my desk. 

And do you know, I squashed them all with my thumb, every one of them squashed flat under my thumb.  I did it out of instinct and in a hurry, intent on making sure that not one single ant survived because by now I had decided these were the scout ants, the ones who go out in advance of the troops to survey the land for food and I did not want any other ants to invade my desk. 
I could not find a local ant to photograph and so I offer an image of my weapon of destruction. 
Only now do I consider the heartlessness of my actions, but when it comes to ants I can be ruthless and why is this so?

 If it were a spider or a beetle, I would have used a tissue and collected the creature, and put it out the door.  But not so the ants. 

Mind you, I’m not sure how I’d have handled an avalanche of spiders. I might well have run from the room.  I’m not scared of spiders as a rule but a group of ten of them advancing from behind my computer screen would be worse than any of the unexpected and negative events that happen in my dreams. 

This puts me in mind of the asylum seeker debate here in Australia which preoccupies me at the moment. I suspect there are folks who regard refugees rather in the same way as I considered those ants, with fear and loathing, mostly because they are seen as enemy aliens to be gotten rid of or avoided. 

The asylum seeker issue is copping a battering in Australia at the moment because the government has been trying to pass legislation that will allow so-called off shore processing, say in places like Malaysia, as a way of preventing people smugglers from taking the refugees’ money and shipping them out to Australia in leaky boats, two of which have recently capsized and sunk with the loss of many lives.  And also of stopping the uninvited influx of refugees from invading our shores.  What an irony when you consider what happened to our indigenous people a couple of centuries ago.   

I know it is a political issue, and a complex one, and that many people have different perspectives so I can only speak for myself.  I can understand why many are reluctant to make room for these strangers.  I know that I too often prefer the cosiness of the in-group, especially when I’m included in it, but if we lock people out, desperate people who have nowhere else to go, out of fear or greed or sheer ignorance then what sort of world are we creating for our young ones?

I sound like a cliché and must get off this topic.  I hate to preach.  For days I’ve been following this argument on Jennifer Wilson’s blog, No place for sheep, and I’m stunned at the vitriol that gets poured into the debate now being waged among seemingly intelligent and thoughtful folk. 

Some actually abuse one another online.  Moron, dick head, idiot etc.  These words when spoken don’t trouble me one bit, but when I read them online I get a shock when they are directed at one another in the course of an argument.   In written form they hold more weight.  And not all the people arguing are men, I understand, perhaps more prone to flaming.  There are some women – or people who identify themselves so - who use this language. 

I say this because I’m still thinking of Plastic Mancunian’s post about the differences between men and women, how men when faced with an issue want to solve it and women more or less want to talk it over, talk it through, get some empathy rather than have the problem solved in an instant.

That’s my take on the issue related to asylum seekers.  We need to think about it more, but there seems to be this push to take action.  Granted it’s been going on for years now and there’s a fear and expectation that many more people will die on those leaky boats, but what other choice do they have?  Their lives are desperate and coming here even if it kills them seems to be their only hope. I can understand that.

And now I think of my ants.  I killed them effortlessly and can rationalise that ants are not sentient beings.  They will not have suffered on their quick exit, but we are hopefully more likely to identify with human beings who need our help now however different from us they might seem to be.  

Most of us know what it’s like at times to feel desperate, but there are degrees.   And for a heart stopping take on this, especially from paragraph four down, I send you back to Jennifer Wilson’s latest post on quiet desperation.  Some of you will understand this well.  

Friday, June 22, 2012

The triumph of the inanimate object

This morning I had trouble finding my favourite cup, a green flute with dark spots.  I enjoy its colour, its design and size.  The perfect size for my morning cup of tea.  My husband hates this cup.  He reckons it is inherently unstable because its base is narrower than its lip.  It can topple too easily in his view. 

            My husband has threatened to throw the cup away before and when I could not at first find it this morning I asked him if he had.  He was insulted that I should accuse him of such a thing, not that my question had reached the stage of accusation but perhaps it was implied.
            I found the cup eventually where I had left it the night before, having taken an unusually late cup of tea in my study.
            It is not unusual  for me to take a fancy to a particular cup, and when at home, to insist that this cup is the only one from which I will drink.  The cup does not get into the dishwasher. I cannot part with it for long enough between washes. I rinse it out between drinks and put it out onto the dish rack to dry, which is another reason why my husband hates my green spotted cup.  It is always in view.  When not in use the cup sits on the dish rack and from time threatens to topple, especially when my husband tries to get access to the sink. 
            He needs the sink clear to wash the spinach and the potatoes.  He needs the sink dry when he leaves his future bread in a bowl, yeast and flour together, eager to rise above warm water.  He needs the sink to wash his hands. 
            The cup all but winks at him in triumph.  Here I am, your wife’s green spotted cup and you cannot get rid of me even if you want to. 
            If only I were like my husband, and drank my tea out of the sturdy cups he prefers, the ones shaped at the base much as they are shaped at the top.  We have several such cups that fit this description.  Then I might not need a favourite cup.  I could settle for one of many and form no strict attachment to any. 
            My cups once used can visit the dish washer.  They need not be left out to dry on the dish rack. They need not gloat over their preferred status and leave my husband in a sore and sorry state of mind, as if his wife were unfaithful.  And she need not worry that her husband might seek to destroy his rival, her beloved cup.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Clutter, clots, clogs and chaos.

The other day I read about a workshop that explores sleep disorders and I toyed with going, not because I have a sleep disorder but because I am curious about what it is that causes some people to suffer sleeplessness hour after hour.

I decided against going.  For one thing I do not have the time to spare, nor do I know the orientation of those who would be taking such a workshop.  I fear too much emphasis on behaviour and the superficial.  Such an approach would drive me potty.  

Worst of although I fear attendance at such a workshop might put the mozz on me and suddenly if I allowed myself to think too long about it I, too, might begin to suffer from insomnia. 

Sleep is such a fragile thing.  It comes in waves.

We looked after our grandsons last night while their parents went out to dinner and drinks for one of our other daughters' birthdays, the first outing my daughter and her husband have been alone together since the youngest was born eleven months ago.  It comes into my mind now thinking about sleep.

Around 9.30 pm I pushed my nearly one year old grandson's pram up and down the corridor willing him off to sleep.  Up and down the corridor I pushed his pram but he was determined to stay awake.  Eventually he could not keep his eyes open and dropped off.   The pram’s movement was irresistible.

My mind does not want to work this morning.  I tell it to think about sleep but it is too cluttered with thoughts of the day ahead.  All the jobs I have to deal with, including a visit to my mother early, because we are having a dinner for the same daughter’s birthday – multiple celebrations for a birthday that fell last week while she was away.

 See how cryptic I can be, avoiding the use of personal names so as to avoid identifying those who might not want to be identified. 

My heads a clutter with ideas, and prohibitions.  The other day I heard about the three Cs of anxiety, ‘clutter, clots and clogs’.  You can read about it here.  They relate  to hoarding, but my interest is in its less pathological manifestations, as something I can get into not only literally – if you could see the junk room in my house you’d know what I mean – but metaphorically, in my head.

The idea is that a degree of clutter is part of the stuff of life. We need stuff to live and in a family of several folks, young and old, you will find lots of things, in use, put aside, open and available at the same time.  

The kitchen table is covered in condiments, open school books, unfinished sewing, shopping lists and more besides.  A lived-in house.  On the other hand, there are areas where the stuff gets piled and is not used regularly nor removed, though it could be if someone put their mind to it. 

An example of clutter that borders on chaos.  I'm the one in white.  

The stuff that stays for months on end becomes a clot.   And finally, there are the areas in the house that can spread one clot after another into a serious clog, serious to the point that activities must be curtailed because there is no room to move. 

You can’t even open your doors for the stuff.  You can’t use your table or bench top for the stuff.  In other words you can’t live. 

I once visited the house of the artist Mirka Mora and her place was like that, only her stuff was mostly art works, great gorgeous canvases and stuff she used as still life, dolls and taxidermic animals and post cards.  An amazing place and some how it did not offend me in the same way a really cluttered, clotted, clogged place might. 

When I was young and worked as a social worker I went from time to time to visit an elderly man who lived alone in Carnegie. The local doctor had referred him because he was concerned about this man’s life style.  The man refused to throw anything out.  The hall way was lined with newspapers in piles and empty tin cans.  There was not an open space in the entire house.  I could only interview him in his bedroom and I was reluctant to sit on the one chair available beside his bed because it too was piled with newspapers. 

He must be dead by now, and I wonder what happened to his stuff.  Did it wind up somewhere on a tip, the useful and the junk all blended together into one unusable mass?  

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Keeping secrets

My mantra: write without expectation of any outcome.  Write into the unknown.  
Grade two, 1960, seven years old, pen in hand.

And then I go into a non-fiction class where the facilitator reckons that anyone who can’t write five sentences on what her book is about is in trouble, or words to that effect.  I challenged the notion.  

We are talking about different processes and perhaps even different times in the life of a book.  I may well still be at the beginning whereas she’s talking about the end phase when the book needs to come together. 

I stood over the cats this morning as the boy tried to pinch the last of his sister’s food before he had decided to leave.  He’s a real standover merchant and so I stood over him, ordering him out of the house until his sister had finished.

I told the non-fiction writer that I love to write.  That was a mistake.  Besides it is not true, not entirely true.  I write because I need to write, because not to write would leave me feeling as if my life has no purpose or meaning.  

I write to find that meaning and to make sense of my life, but that is not something I love, not really.  It’s more like something I am compelled to do, for the pleasure it gives - and indeed it gives me pleasure - and also for the need.

Hilary Mantel in her essay, ‘Diary’ writes about her experience of hospitalisation for surgery that went wrong.  She describes her hallucinations, her ‘hallies’ as she calls them, as if they are real and no doubt they were real to her when they appeared to her mid fever and pain.  But towards the end of her essay she talks about her reservations about this writing.  As if she is fearful of being included among the so-called 'confessional writers', those who, to use her words, 'chase their own ambulances'. 

Is that what it’s all about, this writing of mine?  

I asked a friend to define the expression.  ‘Chasing your own ambulance’, as he understands it, means to go looking for an accident, to write about your trauma, as if to bear witness, thereby encouraging the reader also to bear witness.  

While the word ‘confessional’, despite its religious connotations of admitting to sin, can also mean the notion of disclosing something that has hitherto remained hidden.  It has perhaps a more neutral tone, though the notion of sharing secrets to me does not.

For some reason secrets carry the weight of sin.  Why else keep something secret unless somewhere along the road there is some sense that someone has done wrong?  That someone has something to hide and that something stirs up anxiety or fear.  

We don’t keep unimportant things secret. 

Keeping things secret takes an effort, which is not to say there aren’t many things we might repress, seemingly without effort.  They slip out of consciousness and only crop up when the pressures they exert for exposure rise to the surface.  How did Freud term it? ‘the return of the repressed.’  But that's not the same as deliberately keeping a secret, one that refuses to leave your consciousness.  

I have long tried to understand my inability to learn while I was first at university from eighteen years of age till I was twenty two and went out into the world to take on my first job.  Certainly numbers had me flummoxed.  

In places they talk of a female phobia of mathematics and perhaps of the sciences generally, that goes back in time.  Certainly in my family my father’s conviction that girls were good for nothing apart from housework, child rearing and sexual comfort held sway.  

Despite this, my mother read all her life.  She still does.  But in my father’s mind her reading was limited to trashy romance or pot boilers and religious propaganda like the Catholic Tribune and the Advocate.

The education system within the Catholic schools I attended both in my primary years and at secondary level added to this fantasy of female inferiority.  

The focus was on memory, which we polished with rote learning. Understanding why people might behave as they do, as explored through English literature and history books,  came through a thick layer of religious conviction. 

For instance, Attila the Hun was a barbarian who sought to overthrow the Christians. We read and rote learned the lives of the saints and were encouraged to practice with sincerity and devotion, and an eye to our calling as dedicated to others.  

If we were not called to follow God as priests and nuns, then marriage was the only option, marriage to another Catholic with whom we would bring up several children, as did my mother, but she had married a convert.  Mixed marriages were then frowned upon. 

There was a system of rules in place that barred deeper explorations of the meaning of things and I did not come to understand the meaning of the words, concepts and theories until much later in life.  

There were facts and religious beliefs, faith and goodness.  Others practised evil and wrong doing.  We should not and that was all.  A black and white world, and one which I now prefer to avoid, especially in my writing, other than to describe it.  

Sunday, June 03, 2012

The generational line

Over a dinner of Middle Eastern chicken and couscous, my eighteen year old daughter told me she wants to be a farmer.

‘I know what you’ll say.  Finish you arts degree first’, she said.  ‘But I want to be a farmer.’

Something subterranean rumbled inside of me.  A farmer.  Muddy gumboots and smelly sheep.  What could she be thinking?  But I went along with it, as you do.  Not so far as to say, fine, do whatever you want.  No.  I took the generational line.  Why not?  Your father’s father was a farmer. 

‘Great model he was,’ my daughter said. ‘He turned into a hopeless alcoholic.’

It’s your fault. You steered me in the direction of literature and history,’ she went on.
 ‘When I have children I’m going to encourage them to do other things, like sport.  To have bodies, not just brains.’  Her words rankled. 

Like most children, my daughter can see through her mother, can see through the gaps and holes there, can glean the prejudice.

I scraped the left over chicken onto a plate ready for the dog, and wondered yet again, why I should worry so.

If my daughter wants to be a farmer, let her go.  She’ll find out soon enough what it’s all about.

There are days like these when all I want to do is run off and hide.  Hide in my computer and talk to my blog friends, pontificate on the nature of life, get involved in discussions with bloggers like Jennifer Wilson of No place for sheep. 

Jennifer’s been arguing about moral rights campaigner Melinda Reist Tankard’s take on pornography.  Tankard objects to an American women’s football team coming to Australia to play football in their lingerie, in case there might be ‘accidental nudity’.  In case some part of their bodies in the rough and tumble of the game might show and men watching the performance would get excited.

There’s something here about the forbidden.  A woman’s ankle exposed in Victorian times and all hearts were aflutter.  Freud wrote about it as repression. 

And then there's my secret skepticism at my daughter’s fantasy of becoming a farmer jammed against my curiosity about this less than earth shattering discussion on footballers in their underwear. 

The computer light blinks at me, the email ping sounds and I flash over to my Face Book page. 

I am a woman of her time, with a blog and a Face Book profile.  My daughter reckons it’s a sign of eccentricity.   Who else’s mother keeps a blog. 

I offer suggestions, but the blogs I mention are purposeful blogs, cooking, gardening, sport, not like mine, which wanders into unsafe territories – in a safe sort of way.

And here I am writing about women who play football in their underwear, a touch of ‘accidental nudity’ and too much is revealed.