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Writing a book

I haven’t been here for a while because I’m writing a book and that adventure is taking up all of my time.

A few days ago a peculiar event disturbed my concentration. An email arrived in my public account, containing only a link. Usually I’d throw something like that into the trash if I didn’t know the sender, but I noticed the link was to a regional newspaper, so instead I opened it.

The link took me to an article written by the man who sexually assaulted me, and it was about guilt. For some reason he’d not voted in an election and felt he’d been irresponsible. The article consisted of a mea culpa and an exhortation to everyone else take the responsibility to vote seriously.

I thought I’d recovered my equilibrium. But seeing his name and reading his words was disturbing. My sleep is broken again. So I took myself to the beach and swam for a long time. Then I lay in the sun and fell asleep. When I woke I realised that what I mostly feel about the man is relief that he isn’t in my life anymore, and a complete disinterest in his fate.

The man knew two relevant things about me. One was that my husband was dying. The second was that I suffer from post traumatic stress  as a consequence of childhood sexual abuse, and that I didn’t want to be in situations that might make me vulnerable to its symptoms. Neither of these things made any difference to him.

When I’m writing I lose all sense of time and place. It’s the same when I play my piano, and read. So this evening I’ll write this small post, practice some Bach, then read myself to sleep.

For some reason, seeing the man’s article made me long for my husband’s voice.

I have no idea who sent the link and when I replied to the address my email was returned.

I don’t want to be sent anything else.

We picked each other up…

Stick figures

 

I am thinking of my ten-year-old self. I’m afraid to remember her.

I have a photograph of her  in a pink frock that has white flowers embroidered on it, a Peter Pan collar and puffed sleeves. She is standing beside a bicycle. The photo is taken in front of a house with blue shutters, a rose garden, an orchard and a back gate that opens into a paddock at the bottom of which is a shallow, fast-running creek.

For the last three days I’ve been listening, when I can, to the testimony of the Cardinal. I have been looking intently into the faces of the survivors present in Rome. I have tied ribbons to a tree at the front of our place in their honour.  I have written three posts, commenting on the situation as if I am only an observer.

When I look at the survivors in Rome I see they have done what I did. They have created for themselves a persona which has allowed them to stay alive, and find a way of existing in the world. Those who didn’t find a persona, are dead.

I wonder, as I watch the survivors in Rome, what is the price we’ve had to pay for these personas?

I can’t speak for anyone else. For me, the price has been that I am too afraid to remember my ten-year-old self. She stands at the edge of my vision. She doesn’t clamour, or demand my attention. She simply does not move away.

I hold her at bay. Sometimes she fights my denial and inserts herself into my present in the form of vivid rememberings.

I know she is begging me to let her come back. I know she belongs with me, and I am incomplete without her. I know I am diminished by my banishment of her.

My goal is to one day let her back into my heart where she belongs. To do that, I will first have to become strong enough to bear the anguish she holds.

Don’t ever underestimate broken people…we picked each other up because that is how humanity will go forward. *

 

*David Ridsdale. Survivor.

 

The pink Lampshade. And writing.

Pink frilled lampshade

 

I was reading this excellent piece in Jezebel by Catherine Nichols on how differently male and female novelists write about marriage, and the possible reasons why. Roth and Bellow write about mysterious attractions and breast shape; Ferrante and Austen write about the practical quest to find an intellectual and emotional peer.

It was at mysterious attractions and breast shape that I found myself back with the pink lampshade.

Early in my eighteen-month relationship with David, which he declared mysterious from the first moment of our meeting, he asked if I would send him photographs of my body.

Taking photos of my naked body was not something I’d done before. As well, I was reeling from the ending of my thirty-year relationship with my husband, due to a massive stroke that left him paralysed, without speech and eventually unknowing of me. So I had no idea if David’s request was made too soon in terms of our acquaintance, or if indeed it ought to have been made at all, given the circumstances (him in a marriage, albeit, he swore, one more like two old friends sharing a dwelling) and our age.

In spite of reservations, which I attributed to sexual repression I should get over, I took photos. David, it eventuated, wanted more and I became imaginative in my poses, and strategic use of bits of silk, and fine, transparent cotton. It was fun, and I thought a little giddy in an adolescent way.

After some while I lost interest: the photography took up more of my time than I wanted to give and besides, I wasn’t used to being separated out into body parts and didn’t much take to it, when the novelty wore off. So I sent David a photo of me in my bonnet and gown receiving my PhD. This is just to remind you that I have a brain, I wrote.

He adapted immediately. It was your mind I first fell in love with, he reassured me. You know that. Can you send more pics of your beautiful breasts?

I began to feel like the women in the Manet painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, naked and surrounded by clothed men. I want some photos of you, I told him, for balance. He sent many. I especially liked the ones with the early morning sun glinting off his red-gold pubic hair. But it’s the one featuring the lampshade that is seared into my memory.

At first blush it’s likely your average dick pic, although I am no authority on these, David’s being the only example of the genre I’ve seen. But then you notice in the background a wooden floor lamp, topped with a pink frilled lampshade of the kind I’ve only observed as set decoration in an interminable episode of ABC TV’s interminable Midsommer Murders, a program  I’ve watched when I’ve been really ill and without the strength to look away.

It was also impossible to look at this photo without immediately thinking of Elizabeth Jolly’s short story collection, Woman in a Lampshade. This seems appropriate, as Jolly’s work is variously described as fantasy, farce, a comedy of manners, moral satire, and black comedy. Our relationship was all of those and more but strangely, what the pink lampshade spoke to me most strongly of was the sad furtiveness of David’s secret life, hidden from everyone around him, lived only when the front door closed, and he was at last left alone to peruse my naked pictures, and pose himself to take his own.

From what I knew of him, the pink lampshade was unlikely to be his choice: it shrieked of everything  to do with conventional notions of the feminine, and could, with some adjustments, be worn to the Melbourne Cup. It was a most bizarre background for a photo of an erect penis, an image intended to stir desire and admiration in me.

I tried not to notice the lampshade. This proved impossible. I had no idea how to tell him that the lampshade was more visually compelling than his penis, so I didn’t.

I have no doubt that were David to write of our exchange of intimate images, he would tell our story differently, in fact I know this because of his responses to the photos. I don’t think he ever noticed backgrounds. He was uninterested in the gestalt of the thing. Whether this is because he is a man and I am a woman I’m uncertain: the differences remarked on at the beginning of this piece are, to my mind, the consequence of a culture chained to gender roles, rather than inherently male or female characteristics.

As Catherine Nichols points out in her piece, using a quote from Douglas Adams:

“It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion on them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.”

In Adams’s context, Nichols writes, he’s talking about a horse and rider, but I thought: Female novelists have been writing from the role of the horse.

I’d expand that to suggest that female writers, not just novelists, have been practising our craft from the role of the horse since we first began writing, women generally being more sat upon than sitting. This cannot help but affect our point of view.

I doubt the pink lampshade would rate a mention in David’s imagined narrative, but in mine it holds a central position, an indicator of far more than a penis, or the shape of a breast, can ever reveal.

I’m with Ferrante and Austen: a relationship with an intellectual and emotional peer can be immensely erotic, while being the horse is anything but, unless you’re playing sexual games and have a safe word. I often think of David poring over those images, and while I don’t regret having defeated an inhibition, I wish I’d chosen someone else with whom to do it. Someone without a frilly pink lampshade in his life, for example.

I have no idea why it is that male novelists appear to give their male characters a completely different focus when they’re searching out a life partner than do women novelists their female characters. The implication of Nichol’s horse thesis is that men, as riders and masters, can afford to ignore what they perceive as tiresome or difficult or awkward aspects of women’s personalities while women, from the position of the horse, must for survival acquire as much knowledge as possible about their oppressors.

David once told me I was “difficult.” All that says to me, I replied, irritated, is that you are finding yourself challenged by me, which is different altogether from me being “difficult.”

But the shape of your breast… he wrote. And this extraordinary, mysterious love…

 

 

 

THIRTEEN: Revenge

Dark-matter

Success, David wrote, is the best revenge and I have been successful.

She’d never been entirely sure what the cliché meant or what its relationship might be to that other cliché: revenge is a dish best eaten cold. But what she did see, as she sat across from him at lunch at an outdoor table in a Canberra restaurant on a chilly winter’s day, was that he either hadn’t had enough success or the cliché was rubbish, because he’d just finished telling her he didn’t believe in forgiveness and there were two people who’d done him wrong fifteen years ago and if he saw any opportunity to return the harm now, today, he would.

Who? she wanted to know, of course she wanted to know.

He hesitated. Then he muttered, lowering his head so his words were lost in his sweater. Like a humiliated schoolboy, she thought. Angry. Shamed. Wanting to hide himself from her gaze.

Who? she asked again.

He spoke two names she knew well, though she’d never met either of them.

Why? she asked

He muttered again, something about office space at work and how he’d been resented for taking up too much with a project and that had caused a feud.

Really? she asked, surprised that a dispute over office space could cause a depth and longevity of animosity such that fifteen years later, one of its participants harboured desires for revenge, and could not conceive of forgiveness, even as a generality.

Later, someone told her there was a whole lot more to it he wouldn’t want her to know, but by then they were no longer speaking and she didn’t much care.

On the way to lunch he’d shown her where he used to work. He’d taken her hand as they walked down the street and shown her, because he wanted her to know about him, to know his history and when later she’d remarked how awed she was by the human capacity for forgiveness he’d scoffed at her, and said he didn’t believe in it.

You don’t know my story, he told her indignantly when she looked at him, surprised by the vehemence with which he repudiated the notion. The aspects of himself he’d displayed for her thus far were gentle, caring, self-deprecating, tender, worshipful of her. This was a new turn.

If I could be inside you, he said, taking her hand across the table, I know it would take away all of the last seven years, which have been terrible.

She said nothing. There was nothing to say. She understood the yearning behind his words, but she recognised as well the false hope he harboured of release from his misery, amelioration of his hurts through losing himself in her body.

She didn’t tell him, but she knew it wasn’t like that. She didn’t tell him because she knew he wasn’t able to hear. She didn’t say, it’s not in me, what you long for. If you find it in yourself we can share it, but I can’t just give it to you.

Forgiveness, she thinks, is when you arrive at that point of neutrality in which there are no more emotions powerful enough to make you desire either love or revenge. Forgiveness is the dying of the energy of dark desire. Forgiveness is when you are at peace with a past situation, finally immune to its clamours and chaos.

In this sense, she thinks, forgiveness and revenge have much in common. Is there any greater revenge than disengagement from emotions previously aroused by another, whether love or hate? Is there any greater revenge than becoming impervious to another?

She knows she can’t tell him this. He’s closed to such notions, trapped in his grievances, his sense of injustice, his anger at wrong having been done to him. She sees discontent in his face, the way his lower lip juts out like that of a sulking child and she knows that now, were she to suggest his life might improve if he consider the possibility of forgiveness as revenge, he’d remove his hand from hers, close down, tell her she was being too philosophical, and that she didn’t understand.

So she says, nothing.

Later, she marvels at David’s capacity to bear grudges against others whilst simultaneously, and with focused intent, engaging in and plotting acts of betrayal that are almost inconceivable in their complexity, and the damage they will bring.

He tells her, when she says she doesn’t wish to begin a sexual relationship with a married man, that there is no sex in his life, and should his wife express a desire to resume that intimacy, though he doubts that will ever be the case, he will tell her he is no longer capable. That way, he says to his proposed lover, she will never have to share him or concern herself about his fidelity to her. He is hers, he says. His body is hers alone. His desire is only for her.

Do you realise, she says, that you are telling me more about your intimate life than you are telling your wife, and do you realise, she says, what that means?

He shrugs. Looks away. Says nothing for quite some time. Then he says, I have to fuck you. We have to fuck. I’ll regret it all my life if we don’t.

It’s a normal human impulse, is revenge. There’s nothing pathological about imaging a punishment commensurate with the crime committed against you. The problem is, in inflicting commensurate punishment you become an equal perpetrator. So what is to be done?

She doesn’t want to emulate him. Cart around bad feelings for years, primed to do harm if the opportunity arises. There’s got to be a better way.

She sees revenge as a creature of the moment, an urge, an emotion, a desire that once acknowledged, once permitted to fully experience its life, subsides. It may return, again and again and with every return demand acknowledgement, but it does not necessarily require action. This is the ideal. But who can always live up to the ideal?

Success, David wrote, is the best revenge. No, she thinks, you are quite wrong. Forgiveness is the best revenge. The end of all desire for another, good and bad. Gently leaving them to their fate, because their fate is no longer joined with yours. This is forgiveness. This is the best revenge. When you no longer need to flaunt even your success at them. This is the punishment commensurate with the crime. Freedom.

TWELVE: The feeling of not feeling

coral

 

The trauma expert says: Perhaps the most difficult thing to deal with in post traumatic stress is the reaction of freezing at the time of the trauma.

She elaborates on the brain’s processes, but I’m not listening. What she’s just said explains much: why it is taking me so long to deal with this illness. Why I recall events through a shroud of fog that I’ve concluded is protective in its purpose, but that leaves me with the sense of not quite getting there, of not quite owning the experience as mine. That abdication of ownership leaves me unable to bring home to me the child and woman, frozen in traumatic time.

The fog has been dense enough to entirely conceal them. Daily it thins.

I think, it isn’t possible to discard parts of the self as if they never were, and feel anything but uncertainty and fragmentation. The power of the lost and silenced over a life far outweighs what is present and evident.

Bring them home. Yes.

ƒ

In a meditation I am the constant blue sky: clouds and rain and thunder and lightning pass across me and I witness their progress but I remain the constant blue sky, allowing the ructions, but not part of them.

Then I see a drama unfold. A child, a man. Something swoops in, a being filled with quiet purpose. This being lifts the child from the ground where she lies frozen, while other beings, equally purposeful, hold the man back by his arms. The being faces the man, the child in its arms. You will not do this harm, it says.

I have never before seen such incontestable authority. There’s no threat, no violence, no struggle. There is only: You will not do this harm.

ƒ

The feeling of not feeling is desolation. It is beyond sorrow, beyond all that we know as human. It’s the barren smoking landscape of a rainforest destroyed by man. It’s the coral reef leached of all its colour. It’s the bombed, skeletal city, the splayed body of the slaughtered woman, the heartbreaking pose of the drowned child.

The feeling of not feeling is that of death while you’re still living. This is what it does, the freezing. There is no fight. There is no flight. There is only a paralysis worse than physical death.

Here is the heart of it: the coming back.

The indisputable authority: You will not continue to do this harm.

ELEVEN: Days of words

words4

There are days when strings of words trail repetitively across the consciousness in an infinite loop, like tickers scrolling headline text at the bottom of the television screen. I hate those days.

Today there are two word strings. They run on endlessly beneath images of our family’s new baby girl, her head no bigger than the palm of my hand. Her brothers, her father, her mother, our large extended family gather in the maternity suite drinking pink champagne while she sleeps, our baby girl, named after her great-grandmother. I worry about her future, and if the world will be a better place for women by the time she’s ready to find her feet in it, and fear that it will not.

These are the word strings that unwind themselves at the bottom of a screen only I can see, beneath our girl’s tiny tender head, beneath the vision of our family, busy making new memories.

One. It wouldn’t have happened if I’d been able to find a parking spot. 

When I first told J. he’d written this as an explanation, excuse, rationalisation, justification, she laughed in disbelief.

For myself, today, I have been wrestling with the notion that my fate that day hung on the availability of a parking spot. I’m having trouble getting my head around this much insult, on top of sexual assault.

I am so glad he wrote it. Because I doubt anyone would believe me if he’d only said it. But there it is.

Two. Said not by him but by his wife. I’m glad he came to you and not a prostitute. 

I don’t know if, when she said that to me, she knew what he had done. It doesn’t bear thinking about, really. The possibility that a woman might say to another woman, I’m glad he came to you and not a prostitute, if she knew what he had done.

To think such people exist in a world I thought I knew.

ƒ

When I settle the four-year-old in his bed beside mine he says, Giddy, you have to keep me safe. I will keep you safe, I tell him, a vow made in a heartbeat. I’ll spill blood to keep him safe. Giddy, he says, you have to tickle my tummy and my back so I can go to sleep.

He’s full of instructions tonight. Later I will be woken from my uneasy sleep by him sitting upright in his bed, singing songs he’s learned at day care. He’s sound asleep. Gently, I lay him back on his pillow. Hello, he says. I go to the bathroom, sit on the toilet lid and laugh till I cry, and cry. And cry.

I’m glad he came to you and not a prostitute. The banner unwound itself across the screen as I lay beside the child, tickling his tummy. It wouldn’t have happened if I’d been able to find a parking spot. I can see why J laughed. It’s a line from Seinfeld. It’s Homer Simpson. It’s all the hatred and fear and contempt and disregard and loathing and resentment and grievance that some men feel for women, but never admit, even to themselves.

That’s all it hinged on for him. A place to park the car.

I’m glad he came to you and not a prostitute.

ƒ

The two-and-a-half year old is nursing his new baby sister, assisted by their dad. The infant opens her mouth in a series of enormous yawns. Help me! cries her brother. Help me, she’s going to bite me! He pulls his arms from under her and we all scream but her father’s hands are there to catch her, to keep her safe.

He gives the baby to me. For a while the strings of words vanish and I know only the mysterious contentment of holding a brand new life in my arms. I came out of Mummy’s tummy first, the four-year-old breathes in my ear, as he hangs off my arm. So you are my Giddy. But I’ll share, he says and nods, sage-like.

ƒ

There are the words. And there is what lies beneath them. People think it’s words that hurt, but it’s what lies beneath them that hurts the worst. It’s the thoughts beneath them, unspoken. It’s the intentions beneath them, unacknowledged. Each word has behind it a force that we fully hear not with our ears, but with our hearts.

I understand the tickers won’t cease their infinite scrolling until I’ve stripped the words they contain of their significance. I don’t know how to proceed. I can only hope it will eventually become clear to me. Someday. Some time. While I’m busy. Keeping him safe. In a world I know.

Love: the struggle between the familiar and the unknowable

 

Quint Buccholz

A, my late husband, decided in his early seventies that he wanted to learn how to play the cello. In his sixties he’d decided to learn Hebrew, the language of his tribe. While he was at it, he took up the ukulele, and he started teaching Shakespeare’s comedies in classes run by the University of the Third Age.

All the years we were together and before them, A. took himself to a variety of therapists and psychiatrists in his pursuit of self-knowledge and what is popularly known as personal growth, a term he loathed. I did the same. Sometimes we went together, united in our curiosity about the mysteries of the self, our mutual desire to make sense of being here, our longing to deeply understand our family stories and the story of us, and to learn how we might assuage past griefs, and so free ourselves for present pleasures.

I never felt I would run out of discoveries about A. I loved his vision of other people: he unfailingly recognised their complexities, and that, wondrously, included mine. I was, he told me, the “richest” woman he’d ever known, and while to myself I seemed boringly ordinary, he never found me so.

I was used to being described as “difficult” “intense” “volatile” to which descriptions I would respond by donning a suit of chain mail and brandishing my lance. But when A. revealed me to myself as “rich” I lost my defensiveness, and my shame at apparently being outside the parameters of normal. This is what the sustained loving vision of another can assist into being: love and acceptance of the self.

We also fought, furiously. We shouted, and wept and threw things. I don’t know how it could have been any other way between us as our progression wasn’t always synchronised, and one would inevitably, if temporarily, leave the other behind. The left-behind-one felt anguished rejection, while the forging-ahead-one grew impatient and felt shackled. These roles never entirely belonged to either one of us: we shared them. It was his turn to feel left behind, or it was mine. This exchange took place quite without the conscious knowledge of either party: we were, on a level inaccessible to our everyday awareness, committed to fairness and equality of experience.

Both writers and academics with considerable expertise in the spoken and written word, both with a high degree of psychological savvy, our fights were fierce and wounding. We knew how and where to strike.

We also struggled, as every couple must, to find a balance between the familiar, and the ultimate unknowableness of another human being. The familiar can indeed breed contempt, the contempt of taking for granted, of being unable or unwilling to see the complexities of the other, of being afraid of any change in the other that threatens the comforting familiarity.  The fear of this loss can compel one to subdue the other’s struggle to  change and develop. It’s a terrible thing that humans can do: hold another back, because we fear what their advancement might do to the familiarity that is our security.

It’s possible, I think,  to be familiar with another and not know him or her very well at all, because familiarity is not the same as knowledge.

To settle for familiarity is lazy, and demeaning to both parties, is the conclusion I’ve reached. Love is dynamic, love is an action, a practice, love refuses familiarity and its seductive comforts. Love sings self and other into becoming and when I’m engaged in becoming, I never arrive at a final destination.

A. is gone now, though he always said he believed we become energy in the universe and in that sense, never die. But he is gone from me in his human form. I consult him, in my imagination, on all kinds of subjects, just as I did in our life together. He isn’t always helpful.

After his death, a mutual friend told me he had once confided in her that he’d had the best sexual experiences of his life with me: I was immensely embarrassed, and momentarily pissed off with him. He’d tell people anything, he really would.

I see now that was a most extraordinary thing for a man to say about his marriage, and his partner of thirty years, and that while our bodies and minds and hearts were inevitably familiar to one another, their fundamental unknowableness remained to the last.

Respect the unknowableness, is the only advice I’d give. Of everyone. Of everything. Then you will truly be alive.

 

A. talks about poetry shortly before his stroke.