Friday, March 29, 2013

Longing to belong

The money collectors are out on street corners in honour of the Good Friday Children’s Hospital appeal.  I try not to resent the rattling of tins at every intersection I pass through on my way home from the airport.  One of my daughters is off to China with her boyfriend and we were up at 4.45 am in order to make their flight to Sydney and from there onto Shanghai. 

Most years I relish the quiet of Good Friday but this Good Friday has already been anything but quiet.  It’s the middle of the day before I have a chance to sit down and write. 

Yesterday a free-standing brick wall on a construction site fell over in Carlton killing two young people and critically injuring a third.  An hour or so later a couple of suburbs away in Richmond a truck clipped a car at a busy intersection, mounted the curb and then struck a fourteen year old schoolgirl on her way from home.  She died at the scene. 

Two freak accidents which have left me waiting for a third and so frightening on Holy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter,  or so it has been named in my family on my mother’s side for generations.  Holy Thursday and the last supper. 

I can only think of the families of those young people who died, through no fault of their own.  A freak accident.  In the wrong place at the wrong time and try as I might everything else pales into insignificance. 

The people rattling their tins offer broad and coaxing smiles –  give give give.  Most are dressed in uniform, from the fire brigade, to the SES, even school kids.  Collectors with arm bands and bright coloured tins.  All collect for charity. 

On the way home from the airport another daughter and I stopped in Carlton at Baker’s Delight to buy some bread and encountered a family of fire brigade collecting folk, father, mother and a few children.  They were all dressed in fireman’s overalls and rattling their tins in the faces of diners at one of the open air cafes where patrons enjoy their meals on the street footpath. 

I tried hard not to judge.  All in a good cause and people were polite and agreeable but inside my head I thought the collectors were intrusive.

It’s not a bad thing I know but still the part of me that resiles from too much generosity cringes.  Maybe such ‘begging’ has the hall mark of my overly Catholic childhood where excess generosity hid all sorts of atrocities. 

It’s sometimes hard to put the good deeds of the church up against the things that go on behind closed doors – the abuses, not just of children, but of others who are powerless to protect themselves. 

I went to an Anglican service on Wednesday night where one of my daughters sang in the choir.  I went to listen to her singing but the religious elements were to the fore,  not that they convinced me. 

I enjoyed the spectacle, the back and forth chanting across the church hall, the slow extinguishing of six of the seven candles in the centre of the church until a church helper in black robes took the last one from the church –  to symbolise Christ’s death or so it said in the accompanying pamphlet – and we were left in darkness. 

As I looked around at some of the people in the church, those whom I imagined had arrived out of conviction rather than from a wish to hear their children sing, I felt a twinge of jealousy. 

Oh, to believe.  To have such conviction, and a certain view the world and our place in it.  I have no such certainty.  As much as a part of me admires them their confidence, another part of me shudders. 

And there’s a shut out quality for those who don’t believe. 

I felt this as a child growing up within the Catholic church.  There was ‘us’ and there was ‘them’.  And belonging to the ‘us’ part of the equation offered security.  We were on the right path, the one true faith. The rest, the poor misguided souls were headed elsewhere. 

We could pity them.  We could have some level of respect for their mistaken ways but we were on the side of right and might and all was well. 

My mother's church from whence some of my sense of certainty first sprang. 

I lost that certainty a long time ago but these days when  I see signs of it elsewhere, and not just within religious institutions – it exists in football clubs, political parties, professional groups – I can feel the same cringe of exclusion, but this time from the other side, from that of the outsider. 

The same fear of and longing to belong.  

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The -isms are everywhere

Last night I watched a 1969 movie, The Magic Christian, on You Tube.  I was led there when someone put up a Face Book entry of a short excerpt featuring John Cleese, Peter Sellers and Ringo Starr.   The excerpt took my fancy.  

In it, Peter Sellers who plays the part of an wealthy business man, Guy Grand, takes his newly adopted adult son, played by Ringo Starr, to an art gallery in London. 

Guy grand had adopted his son, whom he calls Youngman, after meeting him by chance in a park where both men took to feeding the ducks.  Youngman has lived as a vagrant sleeping in parks with no money or good fortune to speak of until Guy Grand meets him, falls in love, in a ‘paternal way’ and then takes him under his wing. 

The two then go off both to spend money and to demonstrate how easily people can be bought for any price.  The film’s theme song is that old Beatles number, which I still enjoy, If you want it, here it is, come and get it, but you betta hurry ‘cos it may not last….

In the art gallery Guy Grand and Youngman inspect a dark portrait painting with the air of experts. Grand asks the proprietor whether it’s a Rembrandt.  It is indeed but as yet it is unauthenticated Dugdale/John Cleese tells the two Grands.

‘It’s extremely dark,’ observes Guy Grand.

'Rembrandt was a master of light and shade,' Dugdale says by way of explanation.  
'What is this exercise in light and shade worth?' asks the older Grand. 
‘It’s to be sold at auction,’ says the well spoken and po-faced Dugdale but we expect to get ten thousand pounds. 
 ‘I’ll offer you fifteen thousand,' says Grand.  At which stage Dugdale stops the conversation he had been enjoying with some other fellow in a suit, and turns his full attention onto Grand who ups his offer to thirty thousand pounds in response to Dugdale’s suggestion that he/Dugdale has been advised not to accept any offers prior to auction.  The price seals the deal.  Both men spit on their hands and shake by way of contract. 

Grand then tells his son that this is a marvellous example of French painting at which Dugdale interjects,  'Rembrandt was Dutch.' 

Guy Grand then takes out a pair of scissors and cuts through the canvas to remove a small square that features the nose of the character in the Rembrandt painting.  Dugdale looks on horrified.

Guy Grand then offers the square of canvas to Youngman and urges his son to put it in his pocket as an excellent example of a French Rembrandt nose.  As the two men walk off leaving an awestruck Dugdale behind them, Youngman turns back and urges Dugdale to keep a look out for ‘a good French ear’.

Very Monthy Python-esque you might say, a feature of the humour we enjoyed in the 1970s, British humour, that takes the Mickey out of the upper class and is deeply iconoclastic.

Somehow it fits in well with the crazy week we’ve endured here in Melbourne with our politicians seemingly going berserk.  Leadership spills and the like. 

I despair of politics, the cut and thrust, the constant lobbying for power.  And here in Australia, I can’t help but think there are quite a few men in positions of power who are finding it hard to take orders from a female politician, whatever her merits. 

Everyone acknowledges our prime minister is tough but that sort of toughness seems to intimidate or disturb many people.  It’s not womanlike, so to speak. 

That’s my pet bug bear at the moment, but I must be wary.  On the airwaves throughout social media there are so many different takes on so many issues that seem to me to be gender based, race based and/or age based.  

The –isms are everywhere.  I dare not add to them with my own prejudices.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The truth is a slippery fish

Saint Patrick’s Day and my mind goes to two things.  First the soup we will have for dinner tonight, leak and potato with toasted bread and butter.  It’s a tradition we built up over the years mostly because most of us in this family enjoy the soup, one of my husband's specialities. 

He found the recipe in one of those newsagent’s cook books that came out years ago, one that specialises in Italian cooking.  This Women’s Weekly cook book, or is it from New Idea, a magazine my husband likes to re-name No Idea as a joke in honour of his perception of the magazine's mindlessness?  Except for its recipes, the Italian cook book offers simple tasty delights, including the soup, which we eat on Saint Patrick’s day, in spite of the fact it's called Saint Joseph’s Day soup in Italy.

My mind then pitches back to the Saint Patrick’s Day march of years gone by, in the days when I felt proud to be a Catholic.  One day a year as close to Saint Patrick’s Day as possible, we school children marched along Collins street, which the police had cordoned off and every school sent a cohort of boys and girls to represent them. 

We marched in order of schools, presumably based on the age of the school.  Saint Patrick’s College, my older brothers’ school, a Jesuit school then located in East Melbourne near the cathedral, now no more, came in first, and my school, Vaucluse Convent, run by the Faithful Companions of Jesus, once in Darlington Parade Richmond and also now no more, came in second. 

The school captains held the banners high in front of every group and Archbishop Simonds, who took over from the famous Daniel Mannix, led the procession in his black cathedral car.

It’s timely I should be writing this now on Saint Patrick's Day and after they have just elected another Pope.  I no longer feel proud of my catholic inheritance.  I disowned it long ago in a manner of speaking, not that you can ever disown your past.  It’s there with you forever whether you like it or not.  However, it is possible to learn from the past and not hold yourself responsible for things that you were born into, things not of your own making.  

At least that’s how I see it now and that’s why I’m troubled by this idea I’ve seen on Face Book and in other parts of social media that go on about un-baptising yourself or excommunicating yourself to be freed from responsibility for the wrongdoings of certain members of the church .

I see no need, largely because I imagine the whole thing of baptism and belief is a construction, a thing that is human made and therefore able to be reconstructed in any way we see fit, simply through an internal decision to stay or to leave. 

Of course any belief system can be dangerous if its endowed with supernatural powers and when the powers-that-be encourage the young, na├»ve and innocent to take beliefs on board as gospel truths.  Hopefully, most of us learn to modify our views on such dogma soon enough,  though when I was young, very young, right up until my adolescence I took my religion on board as the ‘truth’. 

Now I think of  the truth as a slippery fish.  You can only grasp it momentarily before it slips off into the ocean and you have to spend long hours fishing for another truth in the form of an equally wriggly fish that might also slide into your hands if you’re lucky enough but again only momentarily before it too slips back into the ocean. 

We can remember the sensation of the truth.  We can play around with how it feels, how important it might be, and we can modify our views; but the idea of holding firm to the truth leaves us only with a dead lifeless fish in our hands, no longer fluid, no longer free to swim the oceans and grow stronger and bigger. 

Maybe that’s too simple a metaphor but strangely when my husband just now went to look for the recipe for Saint Joseph’s day soup we could not find it in the Italian cook book after all.  

My memory, my truth has failed me.  We found a version of Saint Joseph's day soup through Google but where I wonder is the original?  I had hoped to photograph a bowl of soup for you and post it here so you too might enjoy the image and the tastes it evoked. 

See what happens to the truth?   It slips away in the shadows of memory.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Without memory or desire

Remember the words to the song: We’re having a heat wave?  The weather at its extreme affects everything and when it’s hot day after day it’s hard to keep on thinking let alone writing.  It’s hard to sleep.  A sheet is too much.  The fan whirrs its way through the night and interferes with my dreams but the mornings at least are cool, at least for a few hours before the sun forgets we’re in autumn and bears down on us as though we are mid summer. 

On the other side of the world folks will be preparing for spring and normally I feel sad at the last of the summer but not this year.  This year there is a general plea across the sound waves, let it end.

Yesterday I received a letter in the post, a short letter typed and tacked onto a plain white card with a photo as its frontispiece.  I recognised the handwriting on the envelope as coming from my correspondent and friend, Gerald Murnane.  He and I have been writing to one another for several years no, almost ten years by my reckoning, mostly long letters but this time Gerald has told me that he wants me to know that his letters will be reduced for the next several weeks/months because he is in the  middle of writing yet another book, his eleventh I think. 

I have mixed feelings when I read this note. Fair enough I think, he’s busy but then the internal carping begins.  For one thing I’m jealous of Gerald’s ability and opportunity to tackle yet another book – at the ripe old age of 74 – and for another, even if I were totally immersed in a book, which I sometimes am though never quite as thoroughly as GM, I would not dismiss my regular friends with a fob off until their book is finished. 

I know this is unreasonable.  GM’s position is the more appropriate.  Why should he not consider his own needs?  At least he has written to let me know as much.  He writes further that the photo included features 'the sky at evening' near Goroke 'when smoke from the Grampians covered western Victoria'. 

This weekend, a long weekend in Melbourne for Labour day my husband is making tomato chutney.  Despite the heat.  His sister dropped off ten kilos of ripe old fashioned tomatoes. By old fashioned I mean tomatoes grown in the soil of her garden without all the added gizmos that commercially cropped tomatoes include.  They taste better as a consequence. 

Last weekend my husband made Italian sausages, the week before German bacon.  He’s on a home cooked produce burst which pleases him greatly.  

The only thing I can do is write, but when the writing goes badly I can feel jealous of those people who appear to be productive, like Gerald and my husband.  My desire to be productive can bring me unstuck.  

There’s this notion in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, care of Wilfred Bion, that a therapist enter each session ‘without memory or desire’.  It’s a tough one.  To my mind almost impossible but the spirit of it is sound.  The idea is that you enter each session afresh, ready to see what comes up and to approach it with an open mind. 

I try to take the same approach whenever I settle down to write.  To see what comes up for me, and hold no concern for the outcome.  It encourages a certain freedom of thought, especially the idea that I have no expectations of how the writing will go, of what I might produce, of whether it will be worthwhile or whether it will disappear along with so much of my writing into the wastepaper basket of time. 

I’ve spent years at writing school.  I’ve spent years at therapy school and there are always rules about how to proceed, theories about how to relate to the person who comes to see you, how to put pen to paper, your fingers on the keyboard.  Everyone has a slightly different take.

I have this urge now to write about a video I watched yesterday of a certain Eric Wolterstorff  who teaches a bunch of students on transference and trauma.   It comes in the form of a YouTube demonstration.  

I enjoy the way the man presents his ideas and I enjoy his ideas.  They derive in part from Freud’s thinking but they branch off into ideas from systems theory.  One idea being that in each group, beginning with the family constellation, people tend to take on one of a series of roles at different times.

These roles ideally are fluid.  In other words a person can have a preferred mode of operating most of the time but there will be times when the person will slip into other roles.  And that is best, according to Wolterstorff.  The roles each have their advantages and their disadvantages. 

The first role - to me the obvious one - the one into which I reckon I most readily slip is that of the caretaker.  This is the person who says to herself.  I don't have a problem – she may have one, but she tells herself she’s okay, namely not in profound need - I’m okay, but I'm responsible for everyone else here.  

The second role is that of the identified patient, in the family, in the group, the one who is seen to be most in need of help.  The IP as Wolterstorff refers to him/her is the person who assumes, without words more often than not, but through his behaviour, I have a problem and I’m not responsible for fixing it.  

In  Wolterstorff's words, ‘I serve you in the relationship by holding the anxiety for both of us.  Your job is to take care of the problems.’  I put myself in this vulnerable position in which I am helpless and it’s your job, therapist or other members of the family to fix things for me.

The third category is that of the distancer.  The one who says, ‘I don’t have a problem and I’m not responsible for fixing it.’  You lot can fight it out among yourselves, I’m off.  And the distancer takes herself into the next room to watch television while the rest of the family war on. 

The forth and final category in this somewhat over simplified schemata is that of the outcast.  The outcast says in a somewhat aggressive manner, again not so much in words as in behaviour: ‘I have a problem.  I am the problem and not responsible for any effects on anyone else.  Got a problem with that?’  It’s not my responsibility this problem so if you want me to change it you’re going to have to set to work to fix it.

Wolterstorff  refers to these roles as a function of what he calls 'procedural memory'. 

Are you with me here?  or have you switched off? 

On paper it might seem boring but coming as it does from this man whose delivery is comforting, thoughtful but simple enough to understand, I found myself watching all four of these presentations and wondering how they might apply. 

Wolterstorff also talked about 'event memory' where he described the way in which a group of people whom researchers interviewed ten years after the Space shuttle Challenger disaster recalled the event.  The people interviewed were about ten years old at the time of the tragedy. 

Apparently, the subjects remember the core significance of the event after the trauma but they tend to forget the peripheral details, the things surrounding the event tend and tend to distort or alter them in oder to fill the gaps.    

This is typical for all of us when we try to remember.  We lose contact with the surrounding details and so begin to construct bits and pieces of memories from other events and times.

Memoir writers do it all the time.  Therefore memory is unreliable, though Wolterstorff argues and I’d agree, the core memory of the traumatic event itself tends to stay and be remembered with some degree of accuracy. 

Which brings me to another aspect of this talk which I found fascinating in relation to 'event memory', namely the notion that part of our memory of the event is built around those who were there, and the roles they might play. 

The questions are:  who was watching, who did it, who helped and who was hurt?  Wolterstorff divides these roles into the observer, the perpetrator, the saviour and the victim,.  Again he reckons it's important that we can be fluid within these roles.  

It’s not helpful to get stuck in any one role for good, though it seems some people do.

Hence I’d argue the value of empathy.  Empathy enables us to see things from other people’s perspectives, including the uncomfortable ones of being the perpetrator.  Who wants to see themselves as a bully?

 If we get stuck in a role or lose the ability to combine roles, we cannot move forward fluidly throughout our lives. 

If you think on it, you too might see that at times you take on one or another of these roles.  I become a bully because I am bullied.  I stand by and watched as another person is bullied because I cannot bear to be the victim.  Let someone else take on that role.  All four positions move over time. 

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Accidents happen

I ran away once.  Down to the park.  I planned never to return. 

The glazier had propped the sheet of glass against the sideway fence, thick and glossy.  He dropped it off that morning to replace the glass in the back bedroom window, which one of my brothers had taken out with a tennis ball.  My mother had been angry when it happened, only a little.  She understood she said, ‘accidents happen’. 

She was in the kitchen cooking porridge, stirring the lumpy white goo in the pot at the Kooka.  She stood in her dressing gown, pink quilted chenille with an apron tied around her waist.  Not much waist to see.  Her stomach muscles had gone she said, she had lost them having babies. 

I heard the tinkle of glass and ran out into the back yard where my brothers stood red faced and panicking. 

Our father had left for work.  His ghost was there, the traces of his spirit hovering in the background.  We knew had he been there, he would have burst into rage.  But my mother was only a little bit angry.  Enough to remember to turn off the stove when she came out to see the damage done. 

My mother had lived through the Second World War when the Nazis invaded her country, she had lived on nothing but tulip bulb soup for weeks in a row.  They flavoured it with salt.  She knew about the unexpected things that happen and she could get scared, but not today because my father was not there. 

My mother was only ever scared when my father was there because he was the angry one and most often times he was angry with her.  I do not know why he was angry with her, except she seemed always to get it wrong.  She upset him.  She cooked his food wrong.  She ironed his clothes wrong.  She dressed herself wrong and most of all she could not keep us quiet when he was trying to study for his accountancy exams;  when he was trying to watch the television; when he was trying to sleep. 

After breakfast, I ate the porridge holding my breath because although she had remembered to turn off the stove before she went outside my mother had still burnt it.  The porridge had a bitter taste.

After breakfast I went outside with my tennis ball.  I bounced it up and down  in front of me as I walked.  I bounced my ball down the kitchen step onto the concrete path that led to the laundry one way, the washing line the other.  I followed the concrete path out and around the washing line then retraced my steps back to the kitchen door, down beside the laundry and out onto the footpath that leads to the front yard and the street. 

I walked up and down the side path past the sheet of glass, counting the whole time, 95, 96, 97.  I was aiming for 200.  The ball hit a rut in the concrete.  I had aimed badly and the ball ricocheted off in the direction of the glass.  It smashed a chunk off the corner and the broken piece landed on the footpath and shattered into smaller pieces.  They glinted in the sun.  It was not a loud shattering but it was loud enough to send my mother running from the kitchen. 

She looked at the glass, she looked at me and her face went red, her eyes narrowed and she yelled at me.
‘Not again.  How could you?’

What did she mean not again, as if I had done it in the first place?

I ran away from home, determined never to return.  My father’s anger was a given, but my mother’s anger was intolerable.   I had lost her forever.