Saturday, February 28, 2015

No need for possessions

It wasn’t everyday I went out for an extravagant lunch, but on this day I went with a group from my department to lift morale, and Sean came, too.  Despite the call for cheer, everyone clock watched.  Everyone ordered fast and ate quickly in time to get back to work within the allocated hour but Sean and I moved slowly over our meals and conversation.  One by one my colleagues left and by the time they’d all gone, Sean and I were left alone.
‘How about it?’ Sean said.  His eyes raised, his lips moist.
I thrilled at the thought of such unspeakable behaviour, the stuff of novels, and fell in.  We booked a room in a hotel over the road from the shrine.  I even paid the bill.  Why should the man always pay for the woman? I reasoned.
‘Possessions,’ Sean told me, ‘weigh you down.  It’s better to live with little more than the clothes in your suitcase.’
  Sean and his partner lived like this he told me as we peeled off our clothes and I wondered what she might have thought about my taking possession of her man on this crisp autumn day near the shrine on St Kilda Road where the ghosts of soldiers long dead once gathered. 
It was a small room in a low cost hotel with only a view of the sides of office buildings but the sheets were crisp and clean and privacy was guaranteed. 
He bedded me without ceremony.  In those days I operated on remote control much of the time, a woman disappointed in her relationships, and in her chosen career as a social worker; a woman who had wanted to help people but found herself in need of help instead.  I did not know this at the time. At the time I thought only of how wicked I had become and what excuses I could offer back at work.
Nina, the deputy social worker, called me into her office the next day, not long after I had arrived, a little less bold than the day before when I made the decision to leave a message with the secretary to say I’d fallen ill after lunch and would not be in for the rest of the day.
‘You can’t do things like that,’ Nina said.  She did not buy the line I had been ill the day before.  She’d been with us at lunch.  She’d seen me stay behind with Sean.  He also failed to return to work, but she was too polite to put two and two together, other than to tell me, it must not happen again. 
Within a week, I resigned my job at the hospital.  Not because of Nina or Sean or that stolen afternoon but because I could no longer tolerate the idea of being a handmaiden to the doctors who saw social workers as their secretarial assistants in matters of health benefits and first port of call on where to go after discharge when a person is too old or frail to go home alone.  This was not what I had studied for.
As for Sean, I never saw him again, but his name popped up ten years later when a Commonwealth policeman knocked on my door. 
‘Do you know a Sean McCloud?’ he asked.  I nodded my head and he told me the story.  For the several years now, they had been investigating a certain Peter Hill, alias Sean McCloud, wanted by the Canadian police for extortion.  Interpol were on the lookout and they had contacted Sean’s ex-colleagues. 
‘Did you know he was not a qualified social worker?’ the policeman asked.  I shook my head.  
Sean was an imposter who took on professional disguises wherever he travelled as a way of funding his life style, the policeman told me.  He lived off the largesse of others.  He took possession of their possessions and left them wondering.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

I want it now

My Dutch grandmother, a woman of scruples, a woman who held fast to her religious beliefs even under pressure, kept camphor balls in her apron pockets during her pregnancies. 

An uncle told me this recently, when I visited him in his retirement home, this uncle, my mother’s younger brother, and one of the only two left now of my mother’s large sib ship of seven. 

I had read a short memoir of his childhood, and somewhere the words: 
‘The unusual habits of mother during her pregnancy, especially in her choice of food, made her vitamin deficient and could have given her children a form of rickets as our dentist pointed out.’ 

I was curious, and asked my uncle about his mother’s strange eating habits and he talked about the lack of vitamin D from the harsh long winters in Holland and how his mother fed her family cod liver oil.  

He did not mention her eating habits, only this peculiarity. 

My uncle described how from time to time, as his mother went about her housework duties, she dipped her hand into her pockets and pulled out a camphor ball.  Then she put it to her nose and breathed in deeply, as if from a snuff box, but only when she was pregnant, my uncle told me, and only when she had those strange cravings that pregnant women can have, not otherwise. 

It seemed an odd habit for a woman of scruples, a woman whose religious observances bordered on the extreme.  Mass every day even in the snow and cold and the rosary every night.  

She was an expert at self-denial.

Self-denial takes practice.  

I remember when I first decided to get a grip on my television watching as a thirteen year old.  I sat in the classroom and the Latin teacher, Mother Eleanor, was going on about the importance of learning our verbs.  About the importance of putting aside time every night to practise them. 

I pitched myself in my mind to the end of the day.  I saw myself come home.  I saw myself go into the kitchen and spread at least four slices of bread with margarine and jam, then I went to the lounge room where my brothers were already stuck in front of the television and I joined them. 

I put my sandwiches on the arm of my chair and eat sandwich after sandwich as first Bugs Bunny, followed by the likes of Daniel Boone or Robin Hood flashed across the screen.  Then my father came home and I bolted, along with everyone else, no longer hungry for dinner, no longer keen on sitting together as a family, but having to go through the dinner ritual regardless. 

During the Latin lesson that day I decided I would stop watching television.  I would give myself time from the moment I came home to do my homework and then I would get good at Latin. 

I would deny myself for a greater good.

They’ve done experiments with small children where they sit each child in front of a lolly and tell them that if they can resist taking that lolly for five minutes – not sure exactly how long, but about five minutes – then they can have two. 

The researchers do this test to demonstrate the development of impulse control and of will power.    

Some kids can do it.  They can hold out for the greater reward but others cannot.  They want it now. 

When I shop with my husband for some item that is of significant value, a new chest of drawers for instance, or a computer upgrade or some such thing, he likes to look, to compare, to consider and then to go home empty handed, with the intention of returning the next day or the day after that once he’s satisfied this is the best thing to buy. 

Me.  I see it.  I examine it and think about it.  I reckon it’s okay.  Enough value for money, a good quality product, it will do the job.  I want it now.  Why wait till tomorrow or the next day to buy it when we agree we need it and can have it now?

In this way we are different.  But over the years I have noticed some of my husband’s caution has crept into me and some of my impulsiveness erupts from him.  Just some. 

My husband is still a great one for window-shopping.  It’s nothing for him to go off to a farmer’s market and come home with some small token, a bunch of radishes for instance, whereas if I were to go to said farmer’s market I’d feel almost compelled to buy stuff we might not need, stuff that interests me perhaps, expensive butter from nearby farms, venison from a local supplier.  We might eat it eventually but we do not need it. 

I will want to buy something for our children, too, but my husband is happy to feast his eyes on the displays and come home empty handed. 

And then I get to another part of my uncle’s memoir where he talks about his mother’s response to the fact that five of her seven children left home as young adults to live far away in Australia, in New Guinea and in Brazil.

‘Every time somebody leaves, it takes away a piece of my heart,’ my Dutch grandmother said.  And no amount of scruples, impulse control or camphor ball sniffing can stop her heart from breaking.   

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Letters as 'fossils of feeling'.

‘Letters are the great fixative of experience,’ writes Janet Malcolm. ‘Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience.’

Last week I went to a class about letter writing.  Although we talked briefly about the sorts of letters that people write in the privacy of their rooms, we focussed on those letters written for the purpose of performance.

 Letters a person might write to some imaginary friend, or even to a state of mind.  For instance, one of our exercises involved writing a letter to ‘my wake up call’.  Another to myself in three hours when the class would be over.

Michaela Maguire, who took the class was clear and focussed.  We read letters; we wrote our own, with plenty of discussion in between, a group of about ten woman – always women – it was to do with women writing letters after all, and there was a sprit of thoughtfulness throughout the room.  All in three short hours. 

But I worried that I spoke up too much in the class; that I was a show off.  That I wanted too often to share too much, especially as there was one or two women who were quiet. 

I have often wondered what it might be like to be one of those quiet participants in a group.  What it might be like to be shy or reserved, to keep my thoughts to myself. 

I often keep my thoughts to myself but I have this instinctive urge when I enter the space of a workshop where a few of us have gathered to start the conversation rolling, if it hasn’t already started. 

I’ll introduce myself and some people will introduce themselves back and we might talk about the space, or the weather or the fact that so far it looks as though we’ll only be women attending, as happened yesterday. 

I do this to measure the temperature of the room, the nature of the people present.  
Who’s here and what they’re like. 
Will I enjoy myself? 
Will I get something out of our time together?

I divide my experience into two, the audience and the teacher.  In this case, the teacher was fine, friendly, though with a reasonable degree of reserve.  Teachers need this I reckon if they are to hold the group.  The other women were also friendly. 

If we could go on meeting for week after week after week or even month after month we would no doubt become better friends.  We would come to like one another as a group. 

We would form bonds, but a once only meeting is never easy.  There is the quality of what-does-it-matter-I’m-only-here-once-to-get-as-much-as-I-can-out-of-this time but there is also the sense, for me at least, of wanting to make the most of it. 

And the business of reading our writing out to the class is fraught. People hesitate at first and then towards the end there’s an avalanche. 

I was among the first to read, and then kicked myself for my solipsistic reading.  But isn’t that the way of it?  And the final worry I have in such groups is the fear that I will be judged harshly for my age. 

Oh her, she’s just an old fogey.  
Why would they think that?  
Why do I think this?  
Is this how I judged folks older than me when I was younger? 

I fear it might have been so, until of course I came to know those older people.  Even writing about this makes me feel slightly queasy.  Too self referential, too much of what goes on in my mind.  No story line.  

But that’s the way it goes sometimes.  You get the inside story, or at least some of it and the rest I leave to your imagination.  

And then I found a copy of the 2013 edition of Women of Letters in my daughter's bookshelf and read Amanda Palmer’s letter to someone called Anthony.  I imagine he was a friend.  Someone who was dying of cancer and in it Palmer talks about her almost adolescent need to offer people the truth about themselves, however brutal, and about the time she had surgery on her throat and couldn’t speak for two weeks.  How she came to relish silence.

In a much clearer way than I write here, she seems to confirm something I’ve been wondering about above. 

Why not try being quiet for a while? Write letters instead. 

Sunday, February 08, 2015

To fly on broken wings

How do you fly on broken wings?  Wings so broken there are times when it’s impossible to get off the ground. 

Flying on Broken Wings is Carrie Bailee’s extraordinary story of survival in the face of horrendous and unspeakable childhood abuse.  Unspeakable because it takes readers places where no one wants to go. 

We enter a world of horror so great we’re left gasping.  And for anyone who has been touched by the trauma of childhood abuse it becomes a shared journey with someone who’s seen and experienced the worst of it. 

Bailee was not only abused by her drunken father who took delight in tormenting the nine year old girl, but she was also sold to the highest bidder in a paedophile ring where a group of men took delight in photographing children in sexual poses and of doing all manner of perverse things onto their innocent bodies. 

These children are most likely dead by now, the degree of depravity visited upon them can only suggest as much.  But Bailee managed to escape from her adoptive maternal home and from then on she no longer needed to visit her father on the dreaded access visits, although she thereafter encountered other horrific experiences, including a rape shortly after her arrival in Australia as a twenty year old. 

Later in Australia with the help of a group of brave and determined women, counsellors, friends, psychiatrists, and refugee advocates Bailee managed to begin to heal from these unspeakable traumas, but not before going through long periods of intense re-traumatisation when the flashbacks of her childhood brought her back through dissociation into being that little girl again, a girl who could not protect herself from her father’s extreme cruelty.

The book is well paced.  These flashbacks come to us in spurts, sometimes long spurts, but they are always interspersed with parts of the journey wherein Bailee is able to see something of the life she had led and to reach out for help. 

It is her capacity to reach out for help, despite her occasional attempts to run away that is most striking. 

Bailee has a website and on it you can see her performance of her slam poem, ‘Sold’, and there you see a most attractive and passionate young woman, today the mother of two small girls, who has managed to survive to tell her story, especially since both her adoptive parents have died.

I mentioned I was reading this book to a number of people while I followed Bailee’s journey and several said they did not want to read about that level of horror.  I can understand this. 

‘To tell of the trauma is to be re-traumatised’. 

 Bailee’s book is not an easy read, not for its inaccessibility but for the extent to which unlike watching the six o’clock news on the television or online where horrific images of torture and brutality play out often, this book takes us into the heart and mind of one of the tortured and she is 'one of us', a white western woman with pale skin and Caucasian features. 

I worried when reading of her good fortune under Phillip Ruddoch’s reign that Bailee is one of the lucky ones.  Senator Brian Harradine had spoken up on her behalf.  But it seems to me it would have been  harder and continues to be harder today to evoke compassion for all refugees who seek asylum in this country, in part because they are not regarded as one of us. 

Coming from Canada, Bailee is only half-foreign, with her different accent but that’s about the end of it.

The book also alerts us to the need for greater intervention in situations of domestic violence and childhood abuse, and the degree to which traumatised and tormented victims become voiceless. 

As Bailee writes: ‘Children are made to feel responsible for what is being done to them.  This is the abuser’s most powerful weapon.  It prevents them from telling.’

Baillee’s experience is not isolated.  For this reason, I urge people to read Flying on Broken Wings. There are paedophile rings throughout the world and proliferating.  They consist of men who are hell bent on the exploitation of small children, for complicated reasons often including there own experiences of abuse.  

 Paedophiles breed in societies where brutality is sometimes condoned, and where disenfranchised men grow up hating those who are most vulnerable, including their own vulnerable selves. 

To read Bailee’s book is to want to stomp this out – now.