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Certain Dark Things

18 Oct
Arthur Boyd - Lovers in a Boat

Arthur Boyd – Lovers in a Boat

 “I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.” *

After our first meeting I thought, Shit, I will never see her again. Then she sent me a message shall we have coffee before I go home, and so I rang her. She answered from where she was buying boots, it was her birthday, her present to herself she said, and we arranged a day and time and I thought, she feels it too. It entered her when it entered me. That first moment when I saw her and thought, she’s lovely, so lovely, and permitted myself one gentle touch to her forearm as I told her I’d been worried she might think I was an Internet predator, and she laughed and that was the first time I heard her laugh.

Why do you want this with me?

Because I can make your breasts swell and your cunt wet from a thousand miles away. Because, you.

I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I am the kind of woman who can do this. It will take me to a very dark place. And then?

 Don’t give up on me. I can’t bear to lose you. If it gets too difficult tell me, and we’ll sort it out. I can’t bear to lose you. I was so afraid you would be too good to be true for me. This is the email in which you tell me it’s over. That’s what I fear every time I see your name in my inbox. She is leaving me.

My husband is dying. I am making myself read his letters, years of letters from exotic places. They all begin, My darling wife. My darling wife…

 If you had met me when your husband was well and with you, you would still have loved me wouldn’t you?

No. I might have been drawn to you. But there was no room in my heart or mind or body for anyone but him. It is too cruel, for someone whose life is already taken up to invade another’s. That isn’t love. To cause that much harm isn’t love. Love is to refuse the opportunity to harm. Isn’t it?

 I know we are both leaving early today and there is no time for our morning sexy chat. I just wanted our thoughts to touch. Our thoughts to touch. Our thoughts to touch.

I don’t know this at the beginning and I won’t know it for a long time to come, but I am vulnerable and half broken before this affair even begins, judgement askew in a mind and body disturbed by loss incremental and unrelenting. He is a good person he tells me, but sometimes people who believe themselves to be good do the most harm, so blinded by belief in their goodness they are unable to see their capacity to injure.

 You have given me a new lease on life. We are like teenagers. You are so beautiful. Do you think, are you game, would you send me photos? To help with my imagining?

You know. Not of your toes.

 I think about you every waking minute. I am in the hardware store, staring at the shelves, wondering what it is I came here to buy. Thinking about you. I am at lunch with family and friends. Trying to have conversations while thinking about you. I am obsessed. Your photos are so beautiful. Your breasts so shapely, so full, so firm. Can I suckle? Will you feed me? It would be heaven, fucking you as we travelled down the Mekong. Heaven.

And how I love your voice. I long to hear your voice. Always. Your voice.

“Woman, I would have been your child, to drink the milk of your breasts as from a well, to see and feel you at my side and have you in your gold laughter and your crystal voice.”

I can feel him in my blood. It’s cellular, he said, what happened when I first kissed you was a cellular exchange. His words have such power. Does he know the power of words? Do any of us really understand the power of words? Do we understand when we say I love you that one day we may be obliged to say I don’t love you anymore, or worse, withdraw into silence because we lack the courage to speak the truth?

           “…we cannot tell the truth. It is forbidden because it hurts everyone. We never say the truth, we must lie, mostly as a result of our two needs: our need for love and cowardice.”

I was too forensic he told me, which to me meant my meticulous attention to the implications of the heart’s acts of love and treachery disturbed him. You take a word, one word and interrogate it, he complained. I want to know details, I told him. I want accuracy. I want the truth at the heart of the matter. You use words to obfuscate, I told him. I use them to light my way. Language is a holy lamp burning in the dark, I told him. It’s the one thing we have that can bring us close to the truthfulness of something. I can’t help it, I said. I have to know what you mean. You say you dislike giving glib answers. But what you think so carefully about is not how to clarify your answer, but how to make a mystery with your words. I said all this and he said you are making me anxious. When we get into this kind of mess, it makes me so anxious I think it will kill me. So I tried to stop my forensic ways but I might as well have tried to stop breathing. There is the truth of a situation. Or there is a certain dark thing. Or there is both.

           “Had to go crazy to love you / had to go down to the pit / had to do time in the tower / begging my crazy to quit / had to go crazy to love you / you who were never the one…

You always say things I’ve never thought of he told me, with some indignation because he usually believed himself to be the smartest person in the room.

I come to watch your exercise class. It is a hot day and I can see that you are sweating. As soon as you finish I hurry you out. You protest that you need a shower, but I say “no time” and rush you back to the bedroom. I pull your clothes off, then my own and push you back on the bed, startling you with my urgency.

Your cunt is already wide open and wet, my cock hard and wet and I thrust straight into to you. You match my thrusts with your pelvic movements. We are both sweating profusely now, feeling the wetness between our bellies as they move together and apart, in rhythm.

The sweat is dripping from my nipples onto your face, and you lift your head up and lick the sweat from them with your tongue. I share the need, and, your arms being crossed behind your head for support, I can lick the sweat from your armpits, savouring the rich salty taste.

This sharing drives us both into a final frenzy and we come. I am spent, all my cum drawn into your cunt by your strong contractions. We collapse back side by side, exhausted but satisfied and well nourished, our tongues licking our lips to enjoy the last taste of each other.

After a little sleep to recover, we head at last for the shower. Warm water cascades between our bodies, splashing from one to the other.

I soap your wonderful breasts, marvelling at their firmness and fullness, tracing their roundness over and over with my soapy hand. But not touching your nipples, although you thrust forward, wanting to feel my hands on them.

Instead my hands move down to soap your smooth belly, as yours do the same to mine. You soap my cock and balls, and I am amazed to discover, having thought them empty, that they seem full again, and my cock is thrusting against your hand.

My hand moves down to soap your cunt, still swollen it seems from the earlier fuck. As I soap you I feel your clitoris become a hard presence against my hand. I turn you around to soap your back. All the way down to your lovely firm round arse. It is too much, and I turn you round and lift you so I can once again enter your cunt.

You gasp with pleasure then tell me I can come and I do, filling you. My cock softens inside you. Then I slip him out and lower you to the floor. We turn off the water and dry each other, our bodies warm and glowing.

We head for our bed, unaccountably needing to sleep in each other’s arms.

No one has ever before written such things to me. My husband’s love letters were chaste, telling me that he longed for me, yearned for his beloved. My beloved, he called me. Don’t turn your face away from me, my beloved, he begged when we were at odds. Desire has never come to me in the form of the written word and I am astounded, breathless, and not a little afraid of the fierceness it arouses in me. We meet, and our tongues. Our tongues. Every bodily sensation distils itself in our tongues and I think, later, that is a new and superior way to use our tongues to tell the truth.

           “We are in the process of descending into the depths of the heart. To where bodies communicate with each other.”

Why do you want this with me? Why are you taking these risks? Why, when you know it has carnage of the heart written all over it?

Because you are good for me. And because these 24 hours, thinking you’d gone has put a lot of strain on me physically (and continues to) as well as mentally. And because I think we are good for each other. Mostly.

This morning

The thought of seeing you wake up, dishevelled, warm and still sleepy, wearing only a tee shirt, your cunt wet, your fingers reaching lazily for your clit, me taking your hand and licking your juices from your fingers

was driving me wild with desire.

I can’t decide whether I am more obsessed by your cunt or your breasts. My lovely. My beautiful. You.

He said, I always tell my wife I am meeting you. I don’t tell lies. I am astounded by this last statement. I think about it for a long time. I realise that he uses his words to tell one small truth that will obfuscate the large lie. He lies like a politician, like the Cardinal Pell. He tells his wife he is meeting me, which is the truth, but he omits the nature and content of the meeting, the forensics, the accuracy, the truth of it. After he’s been caught he tells me the details don’t matter. But I am the details. Everything that has been between us is in the details. It is the details that break everybody’s hearts, one way or another. It is another lie, to say the details don’t matter. The truth is, they matter more than anything else, they hold everyone’s fate in the balance, no wonder you can’t write fiction, I tell him scornfully, when you think the details don’t matter. What kind of intelligent person, I demand, tells himself details don’t matter?

His wife tells me later that she knew all along, he only thought he was deceiving her. She shouts at me. I shout back. Finally, we stop shouting and listen to one another. So, why, I want to know. If you knew, why did you let him go unchallenged for so long? Because you are the only one I’ve ever thought he would leave me for, she says. The only one? There are others? He is a serial adulterer? He told me you are the most intelligent woman he’s ever met, she says. He’s never given me credit for my intelligence, she adds. He doesn’t even know me. I wanted to do medicine but I met him too soon. I typed his PhD. Family is everything. Depends on the nature of the family, I think, but do not say. He is an honourable man, she tells me, I know you don’t think so, but he is. An honourable man? He has deceived you for all this time, I retort. He didn’t deceive me, I knew, she cried, but he thought he was deceiving you, it was his intention to deceive you, I insist. I am so angry, she says, sometimes I shake with rage. He’s gone deaf, she tells me, he’s lost hearing in his one good ear. That’s lucky, I reply, he can’t hear either of us. Then I remember how years ago when I confronted my mother about her complicity in her husband’s abuse of me she ran out of the room and the next day went stone deaf. No cause could be found for her sudden loss of hearing, and eventually it was diagnosed as hysterical deafness. Protecting her from what she couldn’t bear to hear. He just needs another grommet, his wife said. That’s how she introduced herself to me on the phone. This is (his) wife. I stayed up all night reading your blog, she told me. I suppose you’re curious about me, I said. She yelled: He wouldn’t go out with me for any of our anniversaries, or my birthday because he all he wanted was to be communicating with you! And now he is depressed and anxious and deaf! He sleeps all day! He misses you! He cares about you! He is suffering I am making sure he is suffering I can see it in his face. Good, I tell her. I like you. I like you too, she says.

You’ve been through this, she said, I read about it on your blog. How did you manage? It wasn’t quite the same, I told her. It was over when I found out about it. I never feared he would leave me. Sexual infidelity is one thing and it’s awful. But emotional infidelity, like this is?

If I’d thought he loved someone else I would have left him, I told her. I couldn’t bear to live with anyone who loved somebody else. Who was thinking about her all the time. My husband told me this about his lover: she was never in my imagination. You, my wife, are always in my imagination.

 I desire you infinitely. How beautiful you are. How much we manage to talk and communicate without setting out to talk. How anxious I get and how you reassure and comfort me. How well we have come to understand each other now. How good it will be to hear your voice again. How beautiful you are. How I love you. How I adore you. Night night, gorgeous lady with the beautiful breasts.

“How I would love you woman, how I would love you,/ love you as no one ever did! / Die and still /love you more,/And still /love you more, /and more.”

If a man or a woman chooses marriage, there are words he or she should never speak other than to their beloved. And if he or she does speak them they kill with them, perhaps one, perhaps two, perhaps several people. There was one thing and one thing only I knew for certain about him. That he was capable of terrible betrayal. When he took my hand in the café and gazed at me with the particular intensity that means only one thing, I should have said, no. I should have said what I’ve said before: only if your wife says it’s ok. A constellation of extraordinary circumstances determined that I would love him. I am suffering also, I told his wife. Badly. Good, she said. I know, I said. I know.

 “I remembered you with my soul clenched.”


*In order of appearance in the text:

Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets

Pablo Neruda, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda

Hélène Cixous, The Book of Promethea

Leonard Cohen, Had to go Crazy to Love You

Hélène Cixous, The Book of Promethea

Pablo Neruda, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair

The house of widows

23 Jun

Mrs Chook, with whom I share a home, two dogs, and much of my life, became a widow some considerable time ago, after nursing her husband through lung cancer. For a while she was a member of the local Widows Club. They had good times, played cards and golf, got drunk and raucous, spoke realistically of the men they’d lost, acknowledging their aggravating complexities, at times speaking ill of their dead because there’s no human being who can’t be spoken ill of to some degree, and the Widows Club women were nothing if not honest.

I was once invited to become an honorary member, not because I was widowed but because I was separated, living life without my husband’s daily presence and sharing it with Mrs Chook, but I declined, feeling out of place. Yes, I’d lost my husband in a very real sense, but to see that misadventure as widowhood did not feel true to me.

A separation is indeed a kind of death. But death has different dimensions, and they must be given their due.

I’m sitting in a bus station watching the World Cup on the overhead TV. I’m between worlds, and remembering another bus station, another World Cup on an overhead TV in Cancun, Mexico, another country when I was alone just like now, and it occurs to me that there is something of a pattern in this, bus stations, football, overhead televisions, a heart in a confusion of desire, loss, grief, a woman facing an unknown future. A sense of the complete unknowableness of certain events, transgressive events that tear apart the fabric of the ordinary, events that force open the portal into the extremities of human experience. I realise I have no control over death, or desire or love, and should I attempt to exert any illusionary control I will make myself ludicrous. There are forces abroad in the world that far exceed my puny human capabilities, and there is nothing to be done but ride them out as best I can.

The bus station today is not in Cancun but Sydney, my husband is dying, and I suddenly recall with bizarre accuracy the notice on the door of a hotel room in Mexico City:

 Many people are injured having fun in Mexico.
Air pollution in Mexico City is severe.
Failure to pay hotel bills or pay for other services rendered is considered fraud under Mexican Law.


 I’m at a loss to understand the workings of my memory until I recall that my journey to Mexico caused my husband great angst, indefinite as I’d announced it would be, determined as I was to go without him as he had travelled so often without me. It marked a turning point in the dynamics between us. I had asserted myself as the leaver rather than the left. Twenty years older than me, he was outraged and bewildered, having spent much of our marriage wishing me to be Penelope, spinning faithfully at my wheel at home and keeping suitors at bay while Odysseus travelled the earth. The role never sat well with me and seemingly out of nowhere I exploded out of it, like a woman blown from the mouth of a cannon. This turning of the tables unhinged my husband somewhat, and he wept at the airport. Not even his tears could melt my determined heart. A woman has to do what a woman has to do I didn’t say, but I could have. These were serious endings. I was no longer who I had been up to that point, and neither was he who had never in his life before wept at an airport, while a woman he loved left him behind.

It is tempting to describe these endings as deaths, but I have a profound distaste for the appropriation of death as a metaphor. There is nothing in life for which death can be asked metaphorically to stand. There is nothing in life that can be likened to the radical absence that is the signifier of death. Death is the one situation in which all hope for presence ends. Up to that point, one has merely endured absence.

I have recently become a legitimate member of the Widows Club, though it no longer exists in its original form. More than three decades of marriage, always unconventional, have ended and I am no longer just living separately from my husband while we continue to love one another in spite of our differences. I am widowed. I have begun the labour of mourning, as Freud described the gradual relinquishing of all hope of connection with the loved one that is made inevitable by his or her death. I will never again see his face. I will never again hold his hand. I will never again climb up on his hospital bed and lay my warm body along the length of his frail and shrunken frame.

It’s the finality that brings me undone. I find myself repeating, in my struggle to come to terms with his departure, I never will again.

In the end, I did not leave him weeping at an airport. He left me. I don’t know if he heard me tell him I will always love him. I don’t know if he heard me tell him he did not have to stay, that I did not begrudge him this journey, that I did not need or want him to remain here with me, that I wanted only his release, that he could leave with my blessing, I don’t know if he heard those things I whispered as I laid my body the length of his, and held his beloved head against my breasts.

 Because we’re alive, we inhabit the country of the living; that which is outside, we don’t have the heart to believe, I read, in Hélène Cixious. She’s right I don’t have the heart to believe, yet it is necessary to find the heart to believe, what else is there to do?  We live in the house of widows, I tell Mrs Chook, sitting on her bed in my dressing gown, Little Dog lying on my feet, you’re so pale, she says, and I don’t tell her I’ve woken up maybe ten times in the night, crying those tears you know are serious because they are hot, and burn their way down your cold cheeks. We will be all right, she tells me. You will be all right. In time. It takes time.

As is to be expected at the death of a loved one, memories are crowding in on me, our life together parading itself well out of any chronological order, according to some time line I cannot recognise as having anything to do with reality. I see him dancing towards me across our sitting room, singing, You made me love you, I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to do it, which always symbolised for me his infuriating reluctance to take responsibility for anything. Give me give me give me give me what I sigh for, you know you’ve got the kind of kisses that I’d die for redeemed him, as he always knew it would. The night before he died I found on YouTube a video of him talking about poetry, made just before his stroke. And then, for reasons I cannot explain, I recalled a scene from The Sopranos in which Meadow Soprano sits beside her unconscious father, crime boss Tony, whom she fears is dying, and reads the Jacques Prevert verse:

Our Father which art in Heaven
Stay there
And we shall stay on earth
Which is sometimes so pretty

I shall stay on earth, which is sometimes so pretty. Vale, Arnold Lawrence Goldman.









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.


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.


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.


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.

Quint Buchholz.

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.


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.


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