Saturday, November 23, 2013

Your birthdays, the best day of the year

November is the month of birthdays in our house.  We have three birthdays, each days apart, beginning with mine and ending with my third daughter’s birthday, the last for the year in this immediate family and in between we celebrate the youngest’s birthday.  

We fuss about birthdays, a throw back to our childhood’s, my husband’s and mine, when birthdays were enjoyable enough but rarely fussed over. 

To me it’s the one day of the year when you can claim a special place.  Invariably, at least for me birthdays, my own birthdays are a disappointment.  

Other peoples’ birthdays can be fun.  You know the song: 
‘It’s my party and I'll cry if I want to…’

That’s the feeling, though no one’s heart is breaking over a lost or unfaithful love, though at a symbolic level I suppose the grief is to do with being born, of being separated and out in the world. 

I saw a you tube clip of twins who had just been born, only they did not know it not yet.  

It looks as though they are being held together in the arms of a midwife.  They are breathing independently but their eyes are shut.  They cleave to one another as if they are still in the womb and their arm movements have the jerky feel of babies in utero. 

I want to watch them wake up.  I want to see the look in their eyes.  I want to see them cry, even to greet the world, but the clip stops just as they are lifted out of their amniotic bath.  

And so presumably their lives begin.  Their birthday.  

Monday, November 18, 2013

The way of grief

Here follows the opening of my chapter in Eric Miller's book, Stories of Complicated Grief: A critical anthology.

There are many more chapters written by others that are well worth reading.

Twenty years ago when I was still young, I stood under the shower one morning and found a pea-sized lump in my left breast. I had soaped myself down as usual and with my right hand I pressed the skin against my rib cage to feel the texture of my otherwise smooth breast. I was in search of imperfections.
A friend had not long before been diagnosed with breast cancer and I was more diligent in my search than usual. Only that night I had dreamed of my friend’s gaping breast cut open by a surgeon’s knife. I took it as an omen.
‘It’s probably nothing, but it feels a bit fibrous.’ I imagine the doctor did not want to alarm me. ‘Best to get it looked at.’ It took a few anxious days before my next appointment.
‘This won’t hurt a bit,’ the specialist said, ‘ just like a mosquito bite’. He pushed a long silver needle into my breast above the lump.
A mosquito bite? Clearly no mosquito had ever bitten this surgeon before otherwise he would have known not to lie to me. On a scale of one to ten – toothache being one, childbirth ten – I rate this pain from my memory today, at seven. But it was gone in a flash. The surgeon peeled off a pink bandaid to cover the drip of blood from the pinprick hole he left behind.
The results came back negative but still, ‘to be certain we should take that lump out,’ the surgeon said. ‘I might have missed the growth itself.’
The night before the day of the knife, I looked at my breasts in the mirror. I had a mixed relationship with them. They were the love of my babies’ lives but they stirred up unfathomable and ambivalent feelings in me. They were not however available for serious wounding. I woke from the anaesthetic without pain, still groggy from the drugs. The surgeon visited before my discharge.
‘All fine,’ he said and used an unrepeatable word, which when translated into layman’s terms means a benign fatty deposit. The white bandage held both breasts firm and hugged my ribcage. I was mummified. ‘Keep the bandage on for a week. Cover it with plastic in the shower. I’ll be able to take the stitches out then.’
In twenty years the scar has faded but it remains for me to see, a tiny junction on the left side of my left breast. ‘There is something peculiarly distressing about the first wound on new skin’, writes AS Byatt in her book, Still Life (1985, p. 157). And so it was for me – this scar, this wound, this mark on my breast. But as they say, I should be grateful, it could have been far worse.
I have other scars that are not so visible. They exist beneath the line of my skin, etched into my mind. These are the scars of trauma and grief, the complicated difficulties that have beset me from my earliest days. These are also the childhood scars that steered my vocation and later joined to form other scars through further traumatic experience. That is the way with grief. It becomes a scar, a hard inflexible stretch of skin, which takes the place of healthy tissue, the body’s attempt at healing itself. But scar tissue looks different. It is paler and more dense. There is a limited blood supply available and therefore less movement and circulation and in cases where there is too much scarring, it can block otherwise healthy functioning. So, too, when grief appears to have sealed over, when the initial trauma is past, the area of the wound or loss becomes less flexible. If we are to avoid such hardening, our grief must be worked through over time. 

Saturday, November 09, 2013


One morning I sprayed window cleaner onto my reading glasses so that I might see better through the usual smear of finger prints and collected grime, the build up of days of use.  That morning the fog was out thick and crusty like dirty glasses and the air was filled with moisture, tiny invisible water droplets that together created a grey blanket shrouding the back yard in sorrow.  Everything outside was wet to touch and the washing on the line would take days to dry.  

This sort of moisture permeates the washing in ways a good drenching never does.  A good drenching is in and out in no time, but a moisture soaked fog gets into the fibres of my sheets and stays there for far longer.  It lies like a curse and refuses to budge. 

I heard Craig Sherborne on the radio speaking of how he feels compelled to make sense of the details of his life and relationships by including whatever comes up for him in his writing.  

At times he thinks this is fine.  This is art.  This is the only way he can write with authenticity, even if it upsets some of his readers who imagine, rightly or wrongly, that they find themselves described in his stories. 

At other times he tortures himself with the unethicality of it all.  It is reprehensible.  He should not do it and yet he cannot do otherwise.  It is his way of coping with his life.  It is his passion, his obsession, his reason for being.  

I struggle similarly to justify my writing, on the one hand as necessary as a means of coming to some greater understanding of the meanings of my life.  

It’s all about having greater insights into what it means to be human, as Sherborne suggests, and at other times I thump myself internally for daring to write as I do.  

Somewhere in here the desire for revenge pops up its head and insists on being counted, alternatively as a reprehensible motive for which I must apologise, at other times as a valid basis on which to build an argument.  

Perhaps it is not so much the fact of the writing itself, it is the business of preparing that writing for public consumption.  It is the determination to put on view to allow others to read it that both attempts to satisfy the desire for revenge and also shifts it.  

Once the words are down on the page the hot feelings pass.  They have entered another sphere.  Perhaps they enter into readers who can now detect those yearnings in themselves through the vengeful one’s writing, or perhaps it transforms into something else, some deeper understanding of the human condition.  

No wonder the reader might imagine, no wonder the writer feels like this, I would too.  Such hurtful behaviour meted out towards them.  

I, too, want to hit out.  I, too, want to find some way of releasing that pressure as if from a cooker valve. I, too, want someone else to recognise my grief, and if in so doing I dishonour the perpetrators of that grief, if in the process, I get behind the veil of respectability of polite society, if in writing in this way I strip off the masks from the faces of those who would prefer to remain hidden, even including my own mask, then so be it.  

I can always put it back on later, when we meet for polite conversation.  But in my writing we are stripped bare of such false sensibilities.  

Through my writing hopefully we can approach one another with honesty and integrity even if that experience causes one or both of us pain.  

Saturday, November 02, 2013

No bush fires here

My morning has been derailed by the news that one of my daughters has decided to travel with her boyfriend to Merimbula on the coast.  Just for the hell of it.  It’s a six hour drive.  

They wanted to go somewhere further away, my daughter said.  And they hoped they might find more warmth.

I start to panic.  Will their car hold out?  Will they be safe?  What might they encounter?  Then I remind myself when my husband and I were young we travelled often from Melbourne to Canberra, and Sydney sometimes.  Each trip took a day and we thought little of it except for the tedium of all that driving.
My mother never worried about my travels then, or if she did, she did not let on.  I worry more than my mother ever worried, perhaps to make up for her.  But my daughter is an adult now.  She is responsible and will take care.  I have to let go.

I spent last weekend in Bowral with my husband and various of my sisters and brothers and their partners on a family reunion of sorts, the third since our first effort to get together in 2010.
We had planned to go to the Blue Mountains but the bush fires were hard on the doorstep of Closeburn, the house at Mount Victoria where we had arranged to stay and the proprietor and powers that be there suggested we should avoid the area. 

My younger sister who was organizing the trip chose Bowral at the last minute as a place outside of Sydney that might appeal.  No bushfires there.  None of us had wanted to stay in Sydney proper – too much city. 

We try to compromise in distances for these reunions given that one of us lives in Mildura, another in Dubbo, one in Gippsland, still another outside Canberra and another further north in Brisbane.  The rest of us live in Melbourne, though one Melbournian is away at the moment in America for several months. 

Not everyone made it to this reunion, only six of the nine siblings, and it felt different to me as a consequence.  Some of us came with our partners, which also diluted that family-of-origin feel. 
Still we all managed to fall into role: the girls making tea for the boys; the boys sitting around talking; my oldest brother taking charge, in spite of himself perhaps; my older sister being her usual bossy self.
We joked about these things but on the Saturday night after dinner as we sat around in the dining room of our rented house, spread around on unmatched couches and floral fabric armchairs – the usual motley furniture of holiday houses –  and drank the last of the red wine, I sensed that old wish to subvert proceedings.
The wish rose in my throat.  There was a quality of playing happy families, and I railed against it.
When I consider how much I like to keep the peace in my present family compared to my wish to shake things up in my family of origin, I wonder about the contradiction. 

The front picture of today’s Age newspaper includes a beautiful young woman in a broad open weave hat, tilted on one side of her head.  She is wearing a slim two piece white suit, the sort of outfit women show off at the races. 

It’s the spring carnival season here in Melbourne, the time for people to dress up in anticipation of the great race on Cup Day.

Beyond the young woman’s beauty I was struck by the fact she was not your average white Anglo-Saxon.  She was of Asian descent.  This is not the usual fare we see on the front pages of our newspapers here in Melbourne, not the so-called main stream.

Are times changing?  Can we now recognize and accept the diversity of nationalities within our culture.
The article attached describes how this young woman had organized her outfit on a budget.  Her suit made in Vietnam, her shoes online from the US, everything from elsewhere, inexpensive and yet glamorous. 

It seemed to me there were subtexts here, hidden hints. 
Why the emphasis on frugality?  Is it to encourage ordinary folk to participate in what they describe as fashions on the field.
I do not trust it anymore than I trusted myself at the family reunion. 

I have a photograph in front of me on my desk.  In the class photo of 1968 I smile at the camera along with thirty two other girls in my third last year at school.  All of us in our mushroom pink linen dresses, with white Peter Pan collars.

The photo is taken at a significant time in the history of the western world - massive changes everywhere, the Prague spring - but in it I smile feebly, my medal of Mary Immaculate around my neck.
There are others who also wear the medal in this photo.  It marks us as future prefects, good girls who will soon become leaders at our school.  My hair is in pigtails, my collar crinkled.  My school dress is too tight and it bunches around my waist. 

These are the days when I see myself as ugly and compensate for my appearance by being cheerful, helpful and ingratiating myself to all and sundry.
It seems an effective way to get through my final years at school.  The nuns admire me for it.  My fellow students tolerate me.  A couple of my close friends even like me and one or two others despise me.  One girl in particular, Rosanna, considers me a fraud and treats me accordingly.  She sees through my fa├žade.  Under all the sugary niceness I am as flawed as the rest. 

The good girl of my school years contrasts with the troublesome one I have become.  There is only so long you can hold onto excess piety.