Saturday, April 25, 2015

Don't go

‘You’re on track,’ the gym instructor said to me last week, little knowing that I had dragged myself in and that from time to time I kept telling myself, I’d like to give up on this regime of twice weekly weight lifting. 

But I don’t. 

I must do this till the end of my life or at least until my body says, no more.  I can hardly bear the thought.  Endless hours at the gym trying to stop my body from its inevitable decline. 

I suppose it offers borrowed time. 

It means I feel less shaky on my legs.  It means I can go longer distances, walk further and not feel the trembles every time I get above twenty steps. 

It means I’m still in the land of the living.

Even so, I long to rid myself of this suitcase body of mine and stretch to greater heights. 

There’s still a red scar where my wound happened over a month ago now. It took so long to heal.  I measured the whole of my time away in Edinburgh by the pain in my finger.  It ached more in the cold and every day I kept applying the special plastic bandage the doctor had ordered for me.  This bandage allowed the right amount of moisture through, air and whatever else is needed for healing.  
And now I can’t go to the gym today because it’s Anzac day.  A reprieve and an annoyance. 

It’s hard enough to motivate myself but when the government offers a disincentive in the form of a public holiday where everything is meant to close down – not that it does – then I have to find the motivation tomorrow or the next day. 

And all of this in honour of a battle that was anything but a victory and even if it was, should we be happy about celebrating it?

Scenes from my father’s war in Europe: 

Another of my daughters is going away soon, overseas, this time for an indefinite period, and this time to Japan. 

I have to choke back the lump in my throat that stops me from saying, ‘Don’t go’.  I have to encourage her at every turn. 

It’s a good thing to go away to explore new places, new cultures, new lives, but all the time the tug of home reminds me of why I hate to travel.  Why I hate to stray too far from home. 

My mother once told the story of how in her first few weeks in Melbourne when she lived with her husband and five children in a converted chook shed, she struggled to adjust to this new place so far from Holland. 

One day as she swept the kitchen floor of the bungalow, through the open door, she noticed the parish priest drive by in his car.  She saw him and waved, but he did not see her. 

At that moment a rush of pain ran through her body. 

Back home in Haarlem, the parish priest knew her well.  Back home in Haarlem, he would not drive by and ignore her.  He would stop and visit for morning coffee after Mass. 

Back home my mother was someone.  Here in Australia she was a no one.
At times my mother shifted from this sense of not being wanted or known into deriding the rest.  This country, these people, these Australians, they lack culture. 

They have no art, no history, no ancient buildings.  They do not know about fine food, and they do not discuss important ideas.  They are ignorant and boorish and at parties the men stand at one end of the room and drink beer together while the women huddle at the other end or in the kitchen over cups of tea. 

I tried then to imagine what the word ‘culture’ meant. 

If Europeans possessed culture, then could culture have something to do with the way the men on building sites – the men who to me looked to be mainly European, Italians, Poles, foreigners – behaved?   

These men worked hard and smoked cigarettes.  They wolf whistled whenever a young woman walked past. 

Was this culture?  Was this what my mother longed for, to be recognised, to be wanted? 

The wolf whistles were meant to be complimentary, or were they?

 By the time I reached adolescence and these workers whistled at me, I felt the conflict of pleasure at being noticed with a wish to be hidden and left alone. 

It felt as if I was taken over in some way, but this had to be good I told myself.  This was a sign of approval.  This meant I was desirable.

Yet if these men actually talked to me or knew me in any way, then they would change their minds.  They would see how I was awkward and could not string words together.  They would see the state of my teeth and recoil. 

Or in turn, I might recoil at the sight of their arm muscles, the clumsiness of their broken English or the smell of BO that ran off their bodies. 

Was this culture? 

And now when I am beyond the wolf whistles of the past, when I see them all so differently, when I reflect on such attitudes as patronising, objectifying and a thinly disguised sign of contempt for women, I’m troubled by my childhood self. 

The way I saw things then. 

These old views clash with what I see around me now. 

And once when I was young I might have thought I could continue to get away without exercise – my body, a suitcase rigid and inert, a mere carry all. 

My mind the only thing to matter once I gave up on my soul. 

But I still despise war, not only for those of us who suffer its consequences but most of all for those who must live through it and if they’re lucky enough to survive must live with the consequences of what they have seen, done, and heard.

How can we fight against that?

Going to the gym will only take a person so far. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

He could be an axe murderer...

The night before I met Jim Murdoch in person, I dreamed about our meeting, only in my dream Jim Murdoch had morphed into Gerald Murnane, the Australian writer, once in contention for a Nobel prize in literature, with whom I’ve been corresponding for over ten years. 

Gerald Murnane and I have agreed it’s better to have a relationship through the written word than to engage in person, and until the time we met, Jim Murdoch and I had a similar relationship, one that existed on the page only, or should I say on the screen, an online relationship that many of us in the blogosphere share. 

In my dream, the entire Murnane family came to meet me, but there was some trouble over who might drive the family car, Murnane’s elderly father or me.  This dream speaks to me of all sorts of things, but for now, it’s enough to observe how much it hints at my anxiety in meeting Jim.

Nevertheless, I tried hard not to be nervous about our meeting.  I had only just arrived in Edinburgh two days earlier so I was still in that fog of newness that descends whenever you arrive in a foreign place and my nervousness was hard to shake. 
My Edinburgh-based daughter had shown me the day before how I might walk from our hotel room along St Mary’s Street to Waverly station in Edinburgh to take the train to Glasgow's Queen Street station where Jim and I had arranged on Facebook to meet. 

If only we’d agreed to meet alone.  I say this now because in our initial planning I had mentioned to Jim that my husband would also like to meet him and suggested that Jim’s wife, Carrie, whom I’ve also met online – my husband does not communicate online, he prefers to keep out of cyberspace – might like to join us too, and so we became a foursome. 

The extra invitations were a protective manoeuvre, I reckon now.  As one of my daughters said to me when I told her I’d be meeting the Jim Murdoch from my blog, ‘How do you know he is who he says he is? He could be an axe murderer.’

The thought had not crossed my mind that Jim could be anyone other than the man he claims to be on his blog. I had no doubt as to his actual existence, but to appease my children and my husband and maybe to appease that doubtful part of myself that I here deny, that just-in-case part of myself, I thought it would be better to include our spouses.

I can still see myself arrive at Glasgow station.  I look up in awe at the overarching ceilings on these amazing railway stations in Scotland.  It’s like being in the movies. You mind the gap as you step off the train under the glare of light; you walk the stretch of platform, jostling with other passengers; and then you take out your ticket, and slip it into the slot, not entirely confident that this machine will offer it back for the return journey nor lift the bar to let you through. 

This time it worked and almost before I had time to clear the exit, with my husband close behind, I saw Jim.  I recognised him instantly from his pictures and he recognised me.  Jim was, as his photos suggest, a man with a ginger/grey beard that almost hides his face and glasses. 

My impulse, my rehearsed greeting, was one of a slowly proffered hand, but Jim grabbed me in a hug that was so strong, heart felt and warm it caught me off guard.

I had imagined that Jim Murdoch, the man who tells me about his reclusive ways, would be less forthcoming.  More like me, physically shy and held back.  

I did not say anything of this to Jim at the time.  At the time, we walked briskly along one cold Glasgow Street around a corner past the Wellington Monument and we talked about the weather and the fact that Jim had chosen a nearby patisserie where we might stop to drink our coffee.  

The monument was decked out with a witches hat/traffic cone that some ‘naughty boys’ probably put up there years ago.

Carrie was already settled inside, Jim told us, as my husband trailed behind, all three of us caught up in the niceties of that first meeting.

The rest of our time together swims by in a haze of images.  The coffee lounge or patisserie was one of those large, efficient establishments in beige colours with dark wood flourishes.  I did not pay it too much attention caught up as I was in this first meeting. 

Jim had told me in his Facebook message that given Carrie’s presence we would not be lost for words.  He was right.  Carrie took hold of the conversation and the four of us talked together about the sort of trivia people share when they meet for the first time across countries.  How the weather in Australia compares to Glasgow.  

Together we roamed over all sorts of vague irrelevancies to clear a space for deeper conversation that never really happened.  

We two sat diagonally opposite and there were so many times when I would have liked to shut the other two up and talk to Jim about things that matter to me about writing, things that I imagine matter to Jim, too. 

I would have liked to cut across the friendly banter and dive deep into conversation that meant more, but it was not to happen.  And in the end, after we had finished our lattes and Jim had ordered a second cup of coffee for him and Carrie, and my husband and I had finished our glasses of water – we’d had breakfast on the way to Waverly station and could not tolerate the idea of a second cup of coffee, whereas Jim and Carrie were keen for more – we said our goodbyes.

I was torn between my husband’s needs and my own. My own wish to plunge into thoughts about writing and life in the online world, instead we talked about power companies and the cost of electricity. 

My husband had also mentioned how keen he was to visit Mackintosh House, which he had read about.  A house of remarkable design, whose original owners had introduced a new style of architecture in the early 1900s.  We never got there because the house turned out to be further into town at the university and the rain was pelting down.

By the time we left Jim and Carrie, the first thing we did, in order to get out of the rain and for warmth, we went to GOMA, the Glasgow Museum of Modern Art.  Up and down stairs, the bright lights and colours of paintings on walls by some of Glasgow’s finest artists, left me hankering for the cosy warmth of the patisserie. 

In retrospect, my visit with Jim Murdoch became an opportunity lost.  How could it be otherwise in the circumstances?

There are times when the written word can be more enticing than the flesh, the face to face, the ordinary defensiveness of real life contact. 

In writing we can be more honest, however much we might construct our stories.  In person, we are polite and hide behind our smiles.  

In writing we can tell the truth about lies