Sunday, May 31, 2015

Not dead yet.

You’re a fool, you know that.  A fool to think your body would not start to decay. A fool to imagine your heart would kick on unimpeded forever.  

The blind optimism of your mother.  Even she could not hold out against death. 

It’s less than a year since my mother died and already my mortality hits me in the face.  I’m next in line of the generations to die and although in this world of never ending youth, or at least the pursuit of it, I’m not that old yet, I sometimes feel it. 

Science could let me have another baby if I put my mind and money to it, but I’m past the grandiosity or the desperation of such a move, only I resent my blood pressure rising. 

I’m lucky, the doctor told me at my last visit, I have symptoms, light-headedness, pressure in my head.  Some people don't notice until it’s too late and then, kerplunck, they’re dead. 

The doctor made taking Coversyl for hypertension sound as commonplace as taking Panadol for a headache. 

Once you’re past a certain age, once in your fifties, or past sixty, you're likely to need it.  It's like with cars.  They wear out, so do bodies. 

‘If I asked the population of people over fifty to put up their hands, at least fifty per cent or more would be on Coversyl, sooner or later,’ the doctor said.

And so my fate is sealed.  Five milligrams of the tiny blue pill and in the morning my blood pressure on my home machine had dropped to below 120 over 68. 

What’s in this stuff.  

The placebo effect must in there somewhere, too, because as soon as I took that small blue pill I began to feel better.

I'm so persuadable.  Give me a doctor whose argument sounds reasonably sound and I’m off, following his advice, but I won’t be decided completely on this course of action, this reading of past events, until I see my female doctor, the only one I trust, and then hopefully things will settle down.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Death is round the corner

My head is dizzy and not just figuratively.  Either I’ve copped a virus, or else I’m having a stroke.  Or maybe I have a brain tumour or some other sinister event is taking place within my body. 

The hypochondriac in me tells me this dizziness signals disaster.  The optimist reckons its nothing short of a virus that will pass. 

But I’m surrounded by illness and it can become contagious. 

A friend rang this morning to ask my middle name, she’s making out her will and needs such details. It’s a comfort to imagine she might be planning to remember me in her inheritance, but a grim thought to consider she might die soon.  She’s just turned 85.

And then there are other reminders that death is around the corner. 

I scan the death notices most days, looking for signs that people I once knew have died, but we only subscribe to the Age and most of the names that appear there are those more conventional Anglo-Saxon types who also subscribe to the Age. 

To read the fuller death notices in Melbourne you have to subscribe to the Sun Herald where hundreds of notices from different nationalities ring out the news.  It’s a depressing thought. 

One day my name will be included in those notices, just as we included my mother’s name last year and my father’s before her some thirty plus years ago.

My niece on the cusp of forty may be dying from a rare form of cancer and the very idea fills me with  grief.  Too young, too soon, and yet she has told me, when she goes to the Peter Mac Callum clinic for treatment, she’s not a rare case.  The waiting room is filled with people and many of them are under forty. 

To me, under forty is still young.  Too young to die. 

The longer you live, the older you’ll get, the statistics tell us, as if that too might be cause for comfort.

These grim thoughts need an antidote.

In the shower this morning as I reflected on my night’s dreams, two things struck me. One is the degree to which the babies in my dreams, and I often dream of babies, are a mixture of infant and adult, as in they can talk fluently, they eat adult food, and they can sometimes walk even under six months. 

I drag these babies along with me in my dreams and they tend to fit in and survive.  Make of that what you will. 

Then the other feature - a pleasure in my dreams beyond those occasional dreams in which I find myself flying over rooftops, elevated above the ground simply by willing it to happen - I find money.  And not just small amounts of money. 

There’s a fifty-dollar note I see tucked behind a rock.  I pick it up and there’s another and then another. I stash them into my pockets keen to gather as many as I can. 

But this money belongs to someone else. I should not take it or else I must grab it fast because soon they’ll return and lay claim to it.  I’ll be caught out. 

Adam Philips writes about ‘guilt as the psychoanalytic word for not getting caught’.  I write of the horrors of getting caught.  Of being found out and then of having to suffer the consequences. 

I can’t trick my body.  It knows when something’s wrong, but whether or not I pay attention is another matter. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The threat within ourselves

Inside the front cover of a paper back copy of Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice –faded yellow with its spine held together by sticky tape – someone has scratched out the first initial of my older sister’s name and changed it to a younger sister’s initial.  The book was presumably a hand-me-down for school.

Underneath my sister’s name, my father has written the words: GEKKEN EN DWAZEN SCHRYVEN HUN NAMEN OP DEUREN EN GLAZEN, which translates into ‘People who are silly and mad write their names on doors and windows’.

My sister gave me the book recently.  She’s going through a phase where she wants to rid herself of all negative energy and the words on the front cover of this book exude just that, at least they do for her. 

For me these words are intriguing and given I do not have many examples of my father’s handwriting, they’re a treasure.  However much I might disagree with the sentiment they express. 

When I was little I wondered what these words could mean.  How could it be such a stupid thing to write your name down on the front of your books?  Or maybe my father was having a go at those who write their names on trees and walls and fences, graffiti artists and the like. 

They do more than inscribe their names, but certainly the mark or tag of a graffiti artist seems to be an important part of their work.

 I still write my name in the front of my books, mostly as a territorial thing.  I claim this book as my own.  Not that it helps the book to stay in my possession. I am an inveterate book lender and even though I once tried to keep a list of all books borrowed out to others so that I might remind the borrowers in the fullness of time they have my book, I forget to fill in the list.  It’s incomplete and then I forget where I put it. 

So my books with my silly name in the front cover are scattered all over in other people’s libraries. 

As long as they’re loved, I say. 

I made my annual pilgrimage to the Freud conference yesterday.  The two main speakers from Germany spoke about fundamentalism, fanaticism and religion to a large audience. 

The topic was daunting, not least because during the introductions the conference organiser told us that ‘for reasons of security for this particular conference’ they would lock the doors during sessions and a body guard would protect the premises at all times. 

She told us this in case we decided to go outside during the breaks.  She told us this in order to remind us that should we go outside during one of the breaks we should return at least ten minutes before the proceedings resume so that we are not locked out.

Moreover, the conference organiser told us to keep our nametag on at all times. 
‘If the guard sees you without your nametag, you will be escorted from the building’.
I call this overkill.
Some said it was necessary.  Maybe it was.  A duty of care, one person told me during the break.  Maybe again it was, but it also created an aura of the enemy, the ‘other’, the one lurking outside who might at any moment enter with a machine gun or hand grenade to attack us in our seats or to take us hostage. 

And so we experienced the effects of terrorism first hand, albeit at a distance.  After all, terrorism is designed to terrify.

This contrasts with other injunctions from government spokespeople and the like who say, go about your business as usual and don’t be afraid.  Be alert, but unafraid.

The conference made me more afraid than I might otherwise have been but even though the threat of terrorism is real and there are good reasons for all of us to pay attention, the greatest fear I reckon lies in ourselves. 

Our own tendencies to look at life in terms of the black and the white, insiders and outsiders, clashes of identity.

During the breaks I managed to speak to many people, some old acquaintances, others new, but always I had the sense – as I so often have at conferences – that we are ships who pass in the night. 

Some of these people I saw last year at the Freud conference and I will see them again in a year at the next Freud conference. 

Conferences like this one that happen every year have the quality of Christmas family get togethers. 

Not everyone in the family comes, but there are enough of us who get together, along with a few extras, occasional friends or extended family members, to create a strange tension. 

It reminds me of the energy my sister talks about from the front cover of her book. 

The pride and prejudice of it all. 

I suspect my father’s words might reflect his own difficulties in acknowledging his identity.  He was proud of his name, the same name as that of his father, his father’s father, his father’s father’s father going back through the centuries. 

But he could not wear his name with the confidence he might have liked, given his decimation through war and family trauma, and so he could not tolerate the idea that his children should wear their own names with pride.  

Especially not his daughters.


Saturday, May 09, 2015

Nothing remarkable here.

At a dinner last night, one of our hosts began to talk about his memories from childhood. 

His was an English education, boarding school from the age of twelve, a life I have long wondered about, but then I asked his wife about her education and my curiosity tripped me up. 

What was it like for you as a child? I asked.  Too broad a question perhaps but her response was immediate.
‘I had an ordinary, a normal childhood, nothing remarkable there.’

My friend went on to say something about her mother as a divorcee and that this was not the thing in those days, but that was all.  

I sensed a trapdoor shut with the words, ‘Mine was an ordinary childhood’.

It puts me in mind of the times when my husband and I once interviewed would-be nannies for our children.  If any one of them uttered the words ‘I love children’ I struck them off my list.

I distrust such sentiments.  Who ‘loves’ children and who has an ordinary childhood? To me there is no such thing.

Childhood is that magical and terrifying place where life is its hardest, full of pitfalls, full of tricky and incomprehensible adults.  Full of the hypocrisy of life, when even if you can figure out something of what’s going on, the rest is still in darkness. 

To me there’s a hole in a narrative when someone reports on a happy childhood.  A happy childhood.  A normal childhood, an ordinary one.   There’s no such thing, I reckon, though of course there are degrees.

My mother spent our lives insisting that her childhood was happy. The oldest of seven children, the first girl with only one female rival, a sister, one of twins, six years younger, my mother was the apple of her father’s eye. 

She told us stories endlessly of how she lived in a two-storey house on the Marnixplein in Holland where even though it froze over in wintertime there were always canals and lakes on which to skate. 

I sensed my friend did not want to go into any details about her childhood, after all it was so normal, but something tells me there was much more to it.

Life doesn't begin in young adulthood when we step out into the world.  It begins the day we're born, and the richest moments occur in those extraordinary years before we reach what people call adulthood. 

Virginia Woolf talks about them as ‘moments of being’.  The moment when memories coalesce to form a crystal of images that can take narrative form and become something like the tip of an iceberg, underneath which the rest of our life’s memories form.

They point to something.  Even a statement as bland as ‘I had a normal childhood’, hints at its opposite. 

An ordinary childhood is a restricted childhood, one in which a child is discouraged from going deeply into whatever experience life might offer. 

I can see it in the form of one of my teachers, Miss Fitzgerald, a woman who kept on her coat during classes in the grade three classroom.  She spoke in a thick Scottish accent and had an aura that made her classes the best behaved in the school.  She gave us an ordinary education, one that refused to feed our curiosity and imaginations. 

An ordinary childhood is a repressed one. 

Last night at the dinner, for a moment I felt like a poor relative.  My friends come from other parts of the world, from places far afield and perhaps some of my interminable cultural cringe rose to the surface when I thought once more of the lack of glamour of my own Australian education.

But then I have to check myself. 

We’ve all of us – those lucky enough or unlucky, as the case may be, to have had an  education – experienced something of the Mrs Fitzgerald’s of this world, the strict and sour women who control their classes by instilling fear. 

And whenever it happens, there’s still a story to tell. 

There is no such thing as an ordinary childhood.