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What a woman wants, what a woman needs…

28 Feb

Yesterday I visited a place on the NSW south coast that once served as a sanctuary, a place to which I fled after an almost terminal encounter with cancer left my whole being drastically weakened, terrified to live and equally terrified to die. Daily life had become impossible, I no longer knew how to fulfil its expectations. I needed solitude, away from city life, I needed to escape the claims and demands of human interaction, even with those I loved and who loved me, and I needed this so desperately I think I might have physically attacked anyone who tried to hold me in place. Fortunately, nobody did, I was reluctantly let go when I promised to allow visits, as long as nobody stayed too long, and how long was ‘too long’ was to be determined by me.

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It was also fortunate that we owned a caravan behind the sand dunes on a largely deserted beach. You can’t live in a caravan, they said. You can’t live there all by yourself, you’ve been so sick, look at you, you have no hair and all your bones are showing. Fuck off, of course I can, I told them, unkindly. Any attempt at what I perceived as thwarting me made me frantically distressed, as if I was being pinned down by a body stronger and more powerful than mine that I had to fight off, or suffocate.

The caravan was in one of those old-fashioned parks where families spent their holidays year after year for as long as anyone could remember. When I arrived, exhausted from the four-hour drive and the emotion of goodbyes, the place was largely empty, being out of holiday season and in the middle of autumn. It was cold. The south coast climate is at best fickle, I have known us wrapped in sweaters and blankets on Christmas Day. The caravan, unoccupied for months during my illness and initial recovery, was musty and damp, a habitat for spiders and insects. The day was overcast, adding to the gloom, and while our spot beside the creek in a grove of melaleucas was idyllic, it allowed for little light under such a low grey sky. I had a panic attack. I couldn’t stay in the spider-infested gloom. I couldn’t go back to our light-filled Bondi Beach home where I suffered anxiety attacks every time I went out the front door into the neighbourhood I had, prior to my illness, loved to inhabit, with its cafes where I met my friends, ate weekend breakfasts with my husband and whoever else happened by, where we swam or walked the winter beach hand in hand talking as we always did with such energy and delight, even at the times we disagreed with practically everything the other said.

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After the cancer, I couldn’t talk about anything anymore. The ongoing blows inflicted by the illness, so unexpected, so unpredictable, they seemed unending in their variety and persistence. After cancer is a time largely underestimated in its power to disrupt. Generally, people think you ought to be relieved, happy you got away with it this time, determined to embark on a recovery regime that will get you back in the swim of things just like you were before. In reality, at least for me, it’s when the horror of the experience actually hits home, something that is impossible when you’re going through the treatments and your world has become medicalised to the extent that it overwhelms all other realities. Post cancer, every little twinge in your body is noted with alarm: is it coming back? For months I woke in the night drenched in sweat, from nightmares the details of which I could never remember, and a debilitating weariness dogged my days. There was nothing that did not leave me exhausted, and tearful. I couldn’t manage all this, and human beings as well.

I walked along this same beach yesterday, under a similar low, soft grey sky, the familiar smell of kelp, the haunting cries of seagulls, the gritty south coast sand between my toes. At the end of my beach there’s a broken wooden jetty where I used to lie on my stomach, peering intently at the stingrays gliding through the clear water beneath me. The rhythm of those days and weeks and months of solitude came back to me. In the mornings waking up sweat-soaked and panicked, climbing out of my single bunk bed to make tea on the gas stove, cold, even if the day was warm, because what I remember from those months is how I could never warm myself, even under piles of blankets, even in the hottest sun, it was as if I had a frigid core that nothing could reach, it was as if I had entirely lost my previously automatic ability to regulate even my body temperature. The trembling of my body, most especially my thighs, and the cold sweat drying on my skin. The fear of moving. The terror of putting one foot in front of the other. The utter loss of everything ordinary.

My husband and my adolescent children would visit and though I loved to see them, the relief I felt at their departure, at the resumption of my solitude, made me ashamed. I remembered yesterday the feeling of my starved gulping, my greedy devouring of nourishment not from my loved ones whom I invariably felt I had to reassure, but from the solitude of the natural world in which I was immersed. That was my healing. My guilt at abandoning them was great. But my need to be alone in this wild landscape overwhelmed it. I wanted nothing except what I needed to stay alive, some books, some music. The hurt I caused them did not become fully apparent till some years later when my eldest son, beside himself with unexpressed distress from that whole period of our lives, shouted at me, You didn’t need any of us! You just left us! You didn’t let us help you, you are such a fucking loner, Mum, you don’t fucking need anybody!

Which left me speechless. And reaching out for him and he came into my arms, grown up, so much bigger than me, and sobbed.

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I don’t know how it is for others, but I’ve always had a dreadful struggle between what I need for myself, and what others need from me, and what I want to give them because I love them. Sometimes I think I will die if I don’t have time absolutely alone. Sometimes I cannot bear to engage in one more conversation about, essentially, nothing, the kind of conversations that make up so much of our daily discourse, the words that serve to weave the binding threads between people, and that is their purpose. Sometimes I think if I am not able to sit in silence in the natural world for as long as I need to, I will start breaking things. It’s as if the healing never really finishes, needs to be topped up from time to time with a return to the inner self who increasingly becomes more solid, more real, than any outer persona and whose needs are so far from anything found in the everyday world with its constructed conventions, and its claims that largely require almost incessant, low-intensity interactions for their fulfilment.

For a woman to do what I did, leaving home, husband and family who cared for me through the desperate and dangerous phase of my illness, insisting on solitude rather than accepting their love was seen largely as selfish, and it was, there’s no denying that. It had a price, for all of us, but yesterday I understood that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong or frightening about paying a price for something deeply desired, these are deals we strike every day, choices made, choices rejected, and almost every one of them has some effect on someone to a greater or lesser degree. I still don’t know, after all this time in this life, how much I am allowed to take for myself, how much selfishness I am allowed, how many choices I may make that cause another hurt or discomfort, how responsible I must be for protecting another from disruption in the pursuit of my own desires and needs. With every situation this must be weighed up anew, and I have made some horrible errors. It seems that the important thing is that I continue to bother to attempt these fraught calculations, even though my sums may be dreadfully wrong. I hope that is the case, though I don’t expect I shall ever know.

Quint Buchholz. lemaze-studio.com

Quint Buchholz. lemaze-studio.com

On the “unforgivability” of child sex abuse

3 Feb

Mandela ForgivenessOn the weekend, Dylan Farrow published a piece in the New York Times recounting her experience of childhood sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by her mother’s then partner, Woody Allen.

There was, predictably, an explosion of views on the matter. What caught my attention were the many observations that child sexual abuse is ‘unforgivable.’ As one who has lived through childhood sexual abuse, I find that assertion offensive, ignorant and entirely unhelpful, and I’m about to explain why this is so.

But before I do, there ought not to be any expectation for anyone to forgive injury. Forgiveness is an action that, if embarked upon, can take years to complete. It may never be completed. It may never be begun. I’m writing about my own experience as it has unfolded over many years, and what I needed to do for my own well-being.

What is meant when people talk about forgiveness?  The philosopher Charles Griswold, in his 2007 book Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration, states that forgiveness should be understood as:

…a moral relation between two individuals, one of whom has wronged the other, and who (at least in the ideal) are capable of communication with each other. In this ideal context, forgiveness requires reciprocity between injurer and injured. I shall reserve the term forgiveness for this moral relation.

I am in complete disagreement with this definition. Many situations of  injury are such that it is impossible and/or entirely unwise for an injured party to communicate with a perpetrator. Many perpetrators never concede their actions have caused harm. Griswold’s paradigm excludes many from the possibility of engaging in the process of forgiveness, as he admits:

When none of the conditions is met, the threshold of what will count as forgiveness is not crossed;sadly, and painfully, in such cases we are either unforgiven, or unable to forgive.

My own perspective is a secular one, and I think of forgiveness as perhaps belonging in the human rights discourse rather than the religious, or any crypto-theological morality such as that espoused by Griswold.  When I have foresworn all desire for revenge, and any of the other abuses of resentment, I have forgiven. It is irrelevant if the perpetrator knows this or not, unless it is important for me that he/she does.

I don’t believe forgiveness requires the perpetrator’s remorse. I don’t believe an injured person needs to confront a perpetrator, or continue any association with him or her, in order to forgive them. Most importantly, I don’t believe forgiveness is first and foremost for the benefit of the perpetrator, but rather it’s a state of mind that can finally bring relief and freedom for the injured party from cripplingly painful and destructive emotions.

Which is not to say there’s anything amiss if an injured party chooses to confront their perpetrator. Only that this is not necessary for forgiveness.

I see forgiveness as a human rights matter because acts of revenge that cause suffering to another are always a human rights matter. …Using the suffering of a person or persons to satisfy oneself is morally objectionable, because it amounts to the treatment of wrongdoers as a means only, failing to respect their human worth, writes Trudy Govier in her book Forgiveness and Revenge. At the height of extreme pain caused by injury, it’s difficult if not impossible to think of the perpetrator as having any ‘human worth,’ however in order to inflict injury on me, the perpetrator has already used me as if I have no human worth. Am I to become like him/her? How will that help me?

While it’s perfectly acceptable for anyone to say ‘I would find that injury unforgivable if it were inflicted on me,’ it is not acceptable to apply that judgement to another. The state of non forgiveness is a horrific state in which to spend one’s life. Having been grievously injured by an abuser, is one then expected to suffer the agony of everlasting hurt and desire for a revenge that cannot possibly ever be commensurate with the injury? The desire for revenge, the inability to forgive (if we understand that term to mean the relinquishing of such desires) fixes the victim in their trauma and denies her or him the possibility of a life free from the aftermath of injury. The victim is trapped in a relationship of horrible and unwanted intimacy (for abuse is always intimate) the only escape from which is to forgive. Why, then, would anyone cruelly claim there is such a thing as an ‘unforgivable’ offence?

I will never forget, but I must, if I’m to have any life at all, forgive. The injurious act, as Hannah Arendt points out, is irredeemable, it presents us with …the predicament of irreversibility. This is but one of the challenges facing an injured person. The injury cannot be undone, the life-altering impacts cannot be undone, one is forever changed by the experience of being injured, the life that might have been, perhaps should have been is stolen, and one will never forget. As well as grieving the injury, I grieve the loss of who I would have been had this injury not occurred, a particularly difficult process for those injured while children, who can feel their childhood was destroyed by the actions of an adult.

Judith Butler, in Giving an Account of Oneself, The Spinoza Lectures, suggests that …it may be that the very way we respond to injury offers the chance we have to become human. Commensurate punishment or revenge dehumanises the victim of injury, however what humanises her/him is the opportunity to develop ...a model of ethical capaciousness that understands the pull of the claim, and resists that pull at the same time, providing a certain ambivalent gesture as the action of ethics itself.

What I understand Butler to be saying here is that in the space of uncomfortable tension creating by opposing claims (to punish or to abstain from punishing) the injured party has the opportunity to learn to live with powerful and irreconcilable desires and in so doing, move beyond the ‘unforgivable’ into a life free of revenge and its abuses.

In so doing, I am empowered. In contrast, if the injury done to me is deemed ‘unforgivable,’ I am condemned to a life of ongoing disempowerment, in which my actions are forever governed by my desire for revenge, and my bitter hatred of the one who has done this thing to me.

Commensurate punishment of a perpetrator may frequently be impossible. However, forgiveness …becomes possible from the moment it appears impossible. Its history would begin… with the unforgivable…what would be a forgiveness that forgave only the forgivable? asks Derrida.

Forgiveness must rest on a human possibility – I insist on these two words… he continues. Injury is a human action, the rape of a child takes place in the realm of human affairs. Monsters do not sexually abuse children, humans do. Forgiveness arises in the recognition of our common humanity, and the terrifying capacity for injury and destruction that humanity contains.

So this is why I object to child sexual abuse being described as ‘unforgivable.’ If I tell you I have forgiven, do you then tell me I’m deluding myself?

Do you tell me it is impossible for me to forgive what was done to me, and I don’t know what I’m talking about? Do you disempower me yet again with your opinion? Do you know better than I know myself what my life’s struggle has been? Would you have me lose my life to emotions that destroy my freedom, while affecting my perpetrator not one bit?

If I decide that what was done to me is unforgivable, though I may, at times of great distress, use that term, I am terminating all hope of freedom. Forgiveness is a mystery, beyond the reach of justice and punishment, both of which can be, and often are, incommensurate with the injury inflicted.

So let us speak of the mystery of forgiveness. Forgiving is imperative…it is extremely difficult to forgive. I don’t even know if forgiveness exists. Hélène Cixous

Happy holidays?

22 Dec

It’s here again, that time of the year. I don’t know whether to wish everyone happy holidays, or send best wishes for your survival, emotional, spiritual, physical and mental. I’ll do both, to cover every eventuality, unless of course you voted for the government, in which case I AM NOT FEELING THE LOVE.

But more of that later. In the meantime we say love one another if you can, and if you can’t, stay away from sharp implements.

 Caloundra Xmas 2013

And here’s one of my favourite Bob Dylan songs, Forever Young. Listen to the lyrics, (which are here if you can’t hear them) they are everything No Place for Sheep wishes for everyone.

I love Leonard, because he is sublime.

27 Nov

In three more sleeps, I’ll be at the Leonard Cohen concert in Brisbane. 

It’s impossible to choose a favourite quote from Cohen’s sublime output, but I do rather like this one, bearing in mind the man spent fifteen years of his life in a Buddhist monastery, from which he emerged to discover his manager had fleeced him of every cent:  I’ve studied deeply in the philosophies and the religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.

Cohen’s sense of humour underpins everything he writes: those unbelievers who  claim he creates “songs to cut your wrists to” entirely miss his often gentle, sometimes darkly ironical humour, his innate”cheerfulness breaking through,” his extraordinary self-deprecating modesty that he manages to combine with an equally extraordinary dignity. Cohen is great. Cohen is humble. Cohen is, always, the one whose lonely love is unrequited: My reputation as a ladies’ man was a joke that caused me to laugh bitterly through the ten thousand nights I spent alone, he wryly observes, and in the  beautiful “Ain’t no cure for love” he mourns:

I’m aching for you baby 
I can’t pretend I’m not 
I need to see you naked 
In your body and your thought 
I’ve got you like a habit 
And I’ll never get enough 
There ain’t no cure, 
There ain’t no cure, 
There ain’t no cure for love
 

I use the word “sublime” to describe Cohen’s work reservedly. While “sublime” indicates the presence of an emotional depth and integrity that transcends rational thought and language, strictly speaking it also requires the presence of horror and fear inspired by that which is, in Kant’s terms “absolutely great.” Kant explains the difference between the beautiful and the sublime thus:

Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt. 

The boundlessness of the sublime inspires a desire to transcend the limits of the self,  a fear-inspiring project if ever there was one, most commonly experienced when falling in love, that chaos of intense emotions, sublime delight, and necessarily, if one is offering one’s heart to another, trembling fear. To be in Cohen’s stage presence is to be for those few hours in an open-hearted state of  love without the fear: the man emanates an almost tangible love and generosity, you are the only audience he has ever had or ever will have, he is, like the best of lovers, entirely focused on you, given over to your pleasure, he lives, for these few hours, only to delight you. You feel Leonard Cohen in all your erogenous zones but it isn’t about sex. Cohen’s presence is sublime.

It is not so easy to find horror and fear in Cohen’s work, mediated as it is by humour, melancholy, and melody, however lyrics such as “The Future” describe a chilling dystopian vision:

Give me back my broken night
my mirrored room, my secret life
it’s lonely here,
there’s no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby,
that’s an order!

I can’t argue that Cohen’s music and lyrics are by themselves sublime. But the man’s presence and delivery make them so. Of course, like any text, they are not fully realised without the participation of the reader or audience: if you want to feel Leonard’s great-heartedness, you have to open up your own. He is a spiritual man, whatever one takes that to mean, and many of his love songs can be read as addressing either a mortal lover or a transcendental exteriority.

I’m counting the sleeps.

Like a bird on the wire, 

like a drunk in a midnight choir 
I have tried in my way to be free. 
Like a worm on a hook, 
like a knight from some old fashioned book 
I have saved all my ribbons for thee. 
If I, if I have been unkind, 
I hope that you can just let it go by. 
If I, if I have been untrue 
I hope you know it was never to you. 
Like a baby, stillborn, 
like a beast with his horn 
I have torn everyone who reached out for me. 
But I swear by this song 
and by all that I have done wrong 
I will make it all up to thee. 
I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch, 
he said to me, “You must not ask for so much.” 
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door, 
she cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?” 

Oh like a bird on the wire, 
like a drunk in a midnight choir 
I have tried in my way to be free.

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Stranded in the shit field

30 Oct

Now and again in a life, one runs into what I like to call a shit field – a series of apparently unconnected events that occur simultaneously, or hard on one another’s heels, all of which share a common theme.

It can be difficult to recognise you’re in the shit field at the time, because its very nature clouds the mind and takes a toll on perceptions.

For the last twelve months, and particularly the last four or five, some of the effects of trudging through the shit field have been an increasing lack of creativity, loss of interest in the world, crippling anxiety, depression, and a sense of having completely lost control of my life and my ability to make good decisions.

I apologise to everyone who has stayed with the blog, for my increasing lack of output, and the deteriorating quality of the posts I have managed.

I wrote here about the experience of being with my beloved husband last year, after he suffered a massive stroke. I underestimated the length of time it would take me to recover from the loss of the man with who I had shared a long, fraught love affair of such intensity that I couldn’t ever imagine loving anyone else. I’m familiar with the Kubler Ross theory of the five stages of grief, though in my experience they are not necessarily consecutive, and I don’t recall ever doing any bargaining, probably because I don’t believe in a higher power so I don’t have a transcendental exteriority in my life with whom to cut a deal.

Apart from that, I’d say the model is fairly accurate, and applies to important loss of any kind, not solely death and dying, if one needs a framework to help explain the chaos inside.

I also underestimated the exhaustion I would feel and for how long I would feel it, after week upon week of sitting at my husband’s bedside, watching him deteriorate, watching in shocked despair as he railed and screamed at me in a language I could no longer understand, and at the end of these rantings, trembling as I watched him break down, as he stroked my face with his one good hand, and begged me for I knew not what. I assumed comfort. Many times I climbed onto his bed and laid my body the length of his frail frame, and held him while he fumbled, sobbing, for my breasts.

I would leave him at the end of these gruelling days, and make my way back to the Bondi Beach apartment a friend’s daughter had loaned me while she was overseas. Sometimes I’d catch a bus. More often I’d walk, as a way to calm myself, and reconnect with the world outside of the nursing home. I was not really a fit companion for anyone, and generally too exhausted for dinners or meetings with old friends. I found it difficult to sleep. These days I hate the city, and found adapting to its racket after the silence of my north coast home, almost impossible. I missed my dog. I missed him something awful.

Our life together, mine and A’s, had been largely conducted in Bondi where we lived at the beach, apart from a brief period when A realised a life-long dream, and bought a converted Pittwater ferry that we moored at the Newport Marina and lived on for a couple of years on and off. Our weekend pleasure was to motor slowly round the waterways, and come back to haul up our crab pots full of blue swimmers that A would then cook in a huge pot and we’d eat for supper with wine or a beer.  I remember once standing beside him at the boat’s wheel, my skirt flying open in the wind, my hair whipping at my face, and A turning to me and saying “If I died now, here with you, I would die a happy man.”

I told him this and other stories of our life as I sat beside him, holding his hand. I think he heard. I think he remembered. I think it gave him some sense of who he was, and had been.

I know now that I had never loved him more than I did those months I sat vigil at his bedside. I don’t know where that love came from. I felt it enter me as I walked through the nursing home doors. I felt its energy fill me as I climbed the stairs to his room. I felt that love sustain me through everything that occurred, every day it occurred. That love overwhelmed me.  Without it, I couldn’t have lasted a week. I’m not a believer in anything much. But I believe in that love.

When my friend’s daughter returned from New York, I moved to the glorious cliff top eyrie owned by my friend, Elisabeth Wynhausen, who recently died, who swore me to secrecy when she discovered her cancer, and whom I miss.

The theme of my shit field is emerging.

Then, to my utter surprise, when I had decided such things were over for me, earlier this year I fell in love.  The circumstances were challenging. Everything indicated this was not going to be easy. And yet again, out of nowhere, that love swept in with such power and took hold of me, even harder than before if that was possible, and I said a yes.

Well, in keeping with the theme of the shit field the challenges were too great, and I find myself once again in the stages of grief, or perhaps I never really got out of them.

What strikes me as remarkable, however, is that something so comparatively short-lived can cause an anguish not dissimilar to the loss of the love affair of decades. Of course there isn’t the history to mourn. But the loss. Oh god, the loss.

Or perhaps it is an accumulation of loss that finally overwhelms. I can’t tell yet. I’m still too much in love. I haven’t caught up with events. I’m still talking to him in my head as if he hasn’t gone. I’m still hurt when there’s no good morning and goodnight. I haven’t got used to the loss of him beginning my days and ending my nights. The absence of his presence.

So, I doubt I’ll be out of the shit field anytime soon. Thank you for staying around.

 

How to do an ending

3 Sep

It’s occurred to me many times as I’ve watched quality television drama, how few script writers manage a good ending.

I’m thinking specifically of the ABC TV drama Broadchurch, a series that finished last week.  It was pretty good I thought, and I hadn’t picked the villain. That revelation was an unpleasant shock (Oh, no! No! I cried) which I won’t reveal, in case anyone is planning to watch the DVD.

However, after the critical denouement, things went south fairly rapidly, sinking into a swamp of sentimentality that left me irritated and offended. It was as if the script writers didn’t quite know what to do next, and settled on an unrealistic coming together of an intolerably fractured community as their nod to catharsis. Obviously they felt compelled to attempt a resolution, in a situation in which such a thing would take decades to achieve, if ever.

The final scenes worked as an exposition of the kind of overwhelming public emotion experienced after a catastrophic event, the short-lived euphoria of  an intense and temporarily bonding experience. But it told me nothing about the morning after when everyone woke up to find themselves inescapably trudging through daily life in a bell jar of emotions, most of them necessarily dark.

The other ending that comes to mind is that of The Sopranos. No easy resolution for these scriptwriters: the Soprano family are seated in a cafe, Tony looks up, and everything goes black. What the fuck? I yelled. Then I thought we’d lost our power. However, I count this as one of the finest endings I’ve ever seen. Not even the merest nod to catharsis, bugger audience desire for resolution, everything just went black so figure it out for yourself.

My interpretation was that we were offered Tony’s perspective as his life abruptly and unexpectedly ended.

Of course, everything has definitely gone black now, with the recent death of James Gandolfini, who played Tony. There can be no change of plans and further episodes. It is ended.

Endings are rarely easy. The lovely innocence of Aristotle in Poetics, in which he declares his belief in a beginning, a middle and a cathartic end, seems in 2013 to belong with fairy tales and Hollywood, though in the latter case, innocence is long-lost. The ending has to be happy in Hollywood because that’s what brings in the money. There’s also an infuriating rush to resolution in most media: after the most horrific events, people are urged to seek “closure” and “move on” with what seems to me a most unseemly haste. Grief has its own unpredictable timeline, and Freud referred to the “labour” of mourning, implying the hard slog of it. If you’ve lost a sentient being under any circumstances, you’ll know the rewards of  “closure” and “moving on” have to be earned and they don’t come easy. And they aren’t the only losses some of us have to grieve: loss of health, body parts, hopes and ambitions unrealised. Sorrow is, to varying degrees, an inescapable aspect of human life, so why there is such emphasis on hastily tidying up the dark and difficult with such lack of due respect, is a mystery to me.

“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe I’m alive,” snarls Bob Dylan, in one of his many angrily grieving lyrics written for some woman who’s abandoned him, “but without you it doesn’t feel right…”

It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t feel the same. Something has irrevocably changed. That’s endings for you. And that’s what I want the scriptwriters to show me. Bugger the confected catharsis.

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Black dog

10 Aug

She feels as if she’s walking through treacle, that is, she feels the effort of pushing her body through a thick, sticky substance whenever she wants to move from one place to another. This isn’t anything like she usually feels. Usually she moves effortlessly, through friendly light air, like a dancer, with grace, as she was taught, a being responsive to music even when it’s only in her head, a being on good terms with the element that supports her life.

In the mornings, she wakes to find she’s crying. She’s detached from this crying. Nothing of her is involved in it. There’s no sobs. There are no physical convulsions. There’s just tears down her cheeks, an overflow. She wipes her face on her sheet. She gets out of bed. She goes into her bathroom. She avoids looking at herself in the mirror. She sits on the toilet. She pees, her elbows on her knees, her head in her hands. She feels like really crying but she won’t. This is her goal for the day, the same goal as yesterday and the day before and the day before that. She will not cry.

She puts on pyjama pants, socks and the dressing gown hanging on a hook in the bathroom. It’s chilly, in what passes for winter in northern NSW. She looks in the mirror. Her hair is wild from the night. She pushes it off her face, behind her ears. She looks into her eyes. I don’t even know who you are, she thinks, without emotion.

She goes into the room where the dogs sleep. There are two dogs since she inherited Little White Dog from her son. Her own dog, called Big Dog now, is old and can’t accompany her on the long walks she likes to take on the beaches and through the forest. Little Dog, though, has proved fearless and inexhaustible and follows her over all kinds of difficult terrain, and though she has never been drawn to fluffy white dogs, she is fond of this one.

She goes into their room and they greet her joyously, as if they’ve been separated from her for months, not one night. She strokes them, tells them they are beautiful, and urges them out into the garden. Then she goes upstairs, into the kitchen, puts on the kettle, finds the teapot, puts bread in the toaster, by which time the dogs have peed and are lined up at the kitchen door waiting for breakfast.

She has learned that things will remain fairly manageable if she takes one small task at a time. If she attempts too much, she’ll be overcome by despair and a crippling sense of incompetence. She’s usually very good at doing a lot of things but since the air turned to treacle and since she’s had to spend so much time making sure she’s not crying, her energies and her attention span have diminished. If she gets this toast and tea made and served up to Mrs Chook and feeds the dogs, that’s a good early morning.

She makes an extra piece of toast for the dogs. She used to share the crusts from her own, but with two of them she doesn’t get any. She hears Mrs Chook waking up. She takes the tea and toast into the upstairs bedroom where Mrs Chook is struggling to fight her way out of sleep and the mountain of doonas, books, scarves, papers, socks, pillows and various other detritus littering her bed. She sets the tea and toast on a minute space on the cluttered bedside table, mutters good morning and quickly leaves, because talking just now is way beyond her capabilities and besides, she can’t think of one single thing to say.  Language is leaving her, at least in its spoken form. It’s still present in her head, her own words, the words of others, poems, lyrics, conversations. But the effort of getting it from her mind to her mouth is beyond her and anyway, she thinks, what’s the point? Talking was always over-rated, wasn’t it? I would like, she thinks, to sit with someone, with him perhaps, in absolute silence. I would like, she thinks, with him perhaps, to simply gaze and be gazed upon. Then I would like, with him perhaps, to touch, just fingertips. I would like, she thinks, with him perhaps, to let the bodies and the hearts have their moment, released from the obligations of the spoken word. I am, she thinks, too tired for speech. Too tired for the enunciation. Too tired.

She takes her tea back downstairs to her domain, and turns on her computer. There’s mail. Stuff in which she has no interest, and a video from her daughter-in-law of her toddler grandson laughing. Mrs Chook says Archie laughs like his grandmother. If you look at photos of grandmother, son and grandson you can see they share the same full-faced grin, showing their teeth, joyful beings engaged with life, the three of them. She’s always loved it, that they share her laugh.

Archie, in the video, is beside himself with laughter. It seems to be inspired by a game his dad is playing with him. The child laughs with his whole body. He shivers, and prances with delight. He holds up his little hands and shrieks. He doubles over, clutching his belly and his hair flies out around his head, electrified with joy.  She watches the video over and over again. She isn’t crying, but the tears are running down her cheeks again quite without any input from her. She wipes them away with the sleeve of her dressing gown, and wipes her nose while she’s at it.  She turns up the sound. Archie’s laughter fills her study. She wants to be with him. She wants to hold his squirming body, catch his small hands in her own. Last time she saw him he was sick with a cold. He languished for long periods in her arms, and let her love him. He hadn’t been so long in her arms since he was a tiny infant, when she never wanted to put him to sleep in his cot where he ought to have been, even though his parents told her not to spoil him.

It’s all right, she thinks. Hold on. You can still want, so it’s not too bad. The worst time is when she can’t want. When all desire slips away, out of reach, and she can’t even remember how desire feels.

She turns off the video. She makes a plan. Shower. Dress. Take the dogs for a small walk, one that won’t exhaust Big Dog. Come home. Domestic tasks. One at a time. Then write. She must write. She must not give up writing.

Go out again, this time for a long walk with Little Dog. Take music. Stay out all morning. That way she won’t have to talk to anyone. That way she can concentrate on getting through this day the best she can.

It occurs to her that the only thing she knows how to do is to keep on keeping on.

She loads the dogs into the truck. The sun is shining. It’s warm now.

She can only write about herself in the third person. It’s better than nothing, she thinks.

Love. That is all.

20 Jul

A few months ago I wrote here about spending time with my seriously ill husband, and my experience of coming to terms with the end of a love that had been everything to me.

It took years to accept that love was over, and what I eventually took from that lonely, arid time was painful instruction on the power of human attachment.

When I visited A last year,  desperately ill after a massive stroke, unable to speak coherently and only intermittently recognising me, our life together did indeed parade itself before my eyes, and I laid many things to rest as I sat for weeks beside his bed, holding his hands while he struggled to tell me he loved me and always would.

The miracle was, that after everything that went wrong we did still love each other. I wasn’t altogether surprised to find that in me, because I am very bad at endings. The life may no longer be a shared one, but something in me, deep in my belly, refuses to entirely let go of the love. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing, it just is. So I can look at someone I loved years ago and think  oh, yes, I loved you and oh yes, the ending was hard and I hated you for a while, and oh yes, though I don’t want to do anything about it and my life has changed, still there is tenderness, and gratitude for what we knew together.

Grief is an altered state. It can take you by surprise, long after you think you’ve done with it. It becomes less wild, less consuming as time passes. It can take on a sorrowful tenderness that for all its softness, still wrenches the heart. Grief can be triggered unexpectedly, long after you think you’re done with it, and you find yourself needing to hide away while you work out what has suddenly gone wrong with your breathing, and why out of nowhere you badly want to cry.

For example, I walked into a room today where someone was playing Mendelssohn’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, #2 in D Major. I listened to this Sonata, along with the Brahms #1 in F, during a very rough period in my marriage, during the last of many journeys A and I made together, down the Mekong, through Laos. I’ve heard both many times since, of course, but never without some emotion, the power of which has lessened over time. Yet today, for reasons I can’t explain, I heard the familiar first movement as if I was back on that long boat, sitting on my backpack beside A, both of us silenced by the misery of knowing it was too late for this journey or any other journey together, and neither of us able to end it.

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I don’t have a list of things I want to do before I die. At times I think, vaguely, of travelling to places I’ve never been because it would be excellent to leave the earth having seen as much of it as possible. At times I think I want to go back to the place where I was born one more time, because every time I return to that North Yorkshire country I feel a primitive and powerful sense of belonging that I have never felt anywhere else.

But lately I’ve been thinking that these things come a poor second to love, in all its frequently unexpected and varied manifestations, and it’s likely love that tops my bucket list.

Today my friend said, there’s no such thing as a perfect relationship is there?  There is, I said, after a while. The perfect relationship is the one where you care enough to bother struggling through the shitty bits and find you still want to stay in it. The perfect relationship is the one where you don’t want to struggle through the shit, and you have the decency and the courage to leave before you cause anymore damage to yourself and the other. Love is required for both. Isn’t it?

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Today I re-learned that nothing ends when you think it has. This annoys me, because I don’t live easily with loose ends. Somewhere along the way I’ve got it into my head that one must have “closure,” resolution, well-defined endings in order to move onto anything new. But actually, I’m coming to think that’s crap. My life is a chaos of ongoing love of varying kinds and depths, and I can’t think how to tidy up any of it. Perhaps I don’t have to? Perhaps instead I must learn to live with the disorder of a functioning human heart? Perhaps for years to come I will unexpectedly feel grief for my husband, for my dead mother, for my friend, for everyone I’ve  loved and will love, with various degrees of complexity and difficulty, success and failure.

There is a human being. There is love. That is all.


Housekeeping

24 Jun

Hi, everyone,

I’m taking a blog break.

Please continue to chat with each other if you want to.

Be well, be safe, be happy.

Jennifer.

Desire, yearning and despair.

7 May

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued (in Critique of Practical Reason) that if a man were given the opportunity to have sex with a woman he had long desired on the condition that when he was spent, he went to the gallows, that man would transcend his sensual nature in the face of such an outcome, and walk away from his desire.

This man would, according to Kant, overcome what the philosopher determined to be the “pathology” of such things as wishes and desires, and instead exercise ethical autonomy, reasoning that sex, no matter how greatly desired, was not worth the death that would follow. Kant took his assumption to demonstrate the ability of a human individual to transcend her or his sensuous nature, especially in the face of adverse outcomes.

This perspective has been challenged by thinkers such as Jacques Lacan, and more recently, Slavoj Zizek, both of whom point out that there are some among us who could only enjoy a night of passion if they knew death would follow.

Says Lacan:  “it is not impossible for a man to sleep with a woman knowing full well that he is to be bumped off on his way out, by the gallows or anything else… it is not impossible that this man coolly accepts such an eventuality on his leaving”

Lacan in particular discusses the role of jouissance in such a decision, that untranslatable word (“enjoyment” doesn’t come anywhere near it) that involves living out desire in utter disregard of the consequences.

As Hélène Cixous describes jouissance it contains elements of the erotic, in that it fractures everyday structures, offers sexual rapture, and from a woman’s point of view, offers sublime mental, physical and spiritual experiences. It is a transcendental state, offering freedom from oppressive realities, an escape from hierarchical bonds and systems of cultural, religious, sexual, and linguistic oppression, in short it is: “blowing up the law of the father” (Stigmata).

Lacan being Lacan argues that jouissance can never actually be attained: it remains forever a desire, a yearning. The satisfaction obtained is never the satisfaction anticipated. The reality must inevitably fall short of the imagining. Desire continues to flourish, desire is insatiable, desire is lack.

Or as T.S. Eliot puts it in The Hollow Men:

Between the idea
and the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow.
 
I once had a wonderful teacher, mentor and friend, an elderly psychiatrist who knew too well the perils of acting on his desires, and had incurred a kind of professional death as a consequence of his impulse towards the experiencing of jouissance. The dire consequences of his forays into inappropriate love affairs didn’t stop him telling me how it would have been if we’d met fifteen years earlier. This was one of the things I loved about him: he knew how much he’d lost by loving the wrong women at the wrong time, and it didn’t stop him openly wanting us, even though his time for that had passed. I’ve no doubt had it not, we would have got into something and being who he was, he’d have incurred an adverse outcome yet again. 
 
One of the things he taught me was his theory of a role he called “Yearner/Despairer.” In this role, which he willingly admitted to be one in which he spent a large portion of his time, the individual is filled with most painfully ambivalent emotions towards another, see-sawing between intense longing, and the most abject despair that the longing can ever be satisfied because the other is in some way inaccessible, or the longing is unrequited.
 
My friend argued that this is a role in which many of us spend much of our time, not necessarily on account of another human being, but in longing for things, situations, circumstances that we simultaneously despair of ever acquiring. It is a most uneconomical way to live a life, as the energy expended in maintaining two such contradictory and powerful emotions at the same time, is mind-boggling. 

So what, I asked him, is one to do? Please don’t cross your legs like that, he said, and then went on. All we can do is sit in the ambivalence, he said, and see where it takes us.

But that is too uncomfortable, I protested, how can anyone keep on doing that?

We have no choice, he said. If we sit in it long enough, in that tension of the opposites, another possibility will emerge. But know what you are doing Watch it play out in front of you. Stand back and watch it. It’s the distance you need to learn.

Can you do that? I asked him, because it didn’t seem to me, knowing his history, that he’d chosen such a course.

No, he said. Or rather, very rarely. Even though I knew my desires would see me in the gallows, figuratively speaking, I could never say no to love. But I knew every time what was in store for me. I didn’t do it blindly. I knew what would follow. I made choices. And at times I had to sit in the ambivalence, when things didn’t go as I would have liked. But you must learn to get the distance you need to see what you are doing. Don’t let the emotion blind you if you can help it. Feel it, but don’t let it dominate you. It’s a process, he finished up, and we laughed, because we both hated that word used in that way.

I don’t agree with Kant’s theory that a man (or a woman) will inevitably refuse a night of sexual bliss if the outcome will be certain death, and that this test proves we are capable of transcending our sensual natures. I’m not at all certain that transcending our sensual natures is a worthy goal in the first place. Neither do I agree with Lacan in his assertion that jouissance is only what it is because it is unattainable. That there could ever be an end to desire is unimaginable to me, not because of a failure to achieve the sublime, but because having achieved it, according to one’s own lights, one wants an eternal return.

As for yearning and despairing. It seems to be the human condition. The best to be done is to know it. Or as Cixous puts it:

So let us separate. Let us separate beyond separation. Or else let us love beyond loving. Go further.

 

 

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