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Cabinet of Wonders

22 Feb

Cabinet of Wonders


I’ve decided to re-open my blog The Practice of Goodness as the place where I post stories, poems, fragments, etc, keeping No Place for Sheep for politics and commentary. This piece to my late husband is the last of its kind I’ll post here.


Cabinet of Wonders

I dreamed I was walking through the park at the end of an autumn day. The tree shadows were long and the light golden. I saw you on the path in front of me, and hurried to catch up. Your hands were in the pockets of your jeans. You wore the dark purple sweater I knitted for you to keep out the cold you felt so keenly. The pattern was elaborate, it took months to finish, and you marvelled that my hands, with wool and needles, wove for you enduring warmth.

My wife made this, you told people.

Sometimes you would cradle my face in your hands and look at me and say, my wife.

When I caught up with you I slipped my hand into your pocket to touch yours. You turned your head and your look was quizzical. I saw the man I thought was you, wasn’t. The difference was barely discernible, but it was there. Shaken, I pulled my hand out of your pocket. We kept walking side by side, in silence.

We came to a bandstand, painted white with green trim, and hung with paper lanterns. Silent still, we walked up three wooden steps to the platform. We stayed there for some time, leaning on the railing, watching park life. I started to cry. You gazed at me then you pointed to a small house with double doors, off to the right, whose windows top and bottom looked to be filled with hand-carved toys, painted silks, and the mysterious devices of starlit sorcery. A cabinet of wonders, I thought. Our hearts.

You started down the bandstand steps. I cried harder. You looked back at me and smiled and pointed again to the house. I was to go with you there, I believed.

I could barely see for weeping as I stumbled down the wooden steps and followed you. But I was far behind and you forged ahead and I knew I wouldn’t catch up.

That moment in time, between when I put my hand in your pocket and when I realised the man I thought was you was not, has now settled deep in the cradle of my belly, where it has taken on the qualities of eternity.

I watched as you looked back and raised your goodbye hand. I watched as you disappeared into the cabinet of wonders. I watched as its doors closed behind you and I did not try to follow.

Awake, I know again that you are dead, and there is not one part of me that does not grieve you.

Wife. Time. Eternity. Wonders. The mysterious devices of starlit sorcery. Come back, and I will throw my arms around you.

Treading on bees

18 Feb

This post is not about politics. Don’t complain that I didn’t tell you.

bee lifting leg

I woke from a dream of my lover’s shoes. 

He always wore dirty black shoes with square toes when we met up. I asked him as I watched him undo them in preparation for getting into bed with me, “Do you ever clean your shoes?”

He shook his head. “I only have one pair,” he told me.

I thought that was all right. I have lots of shoes but I prefer wearing boots. Mostly in the climate I live in it’s better to go barefoot. The only problem with going barefoot is treading on bees. I accidentally tread on bees a lot and as you might know, a bee sting can itch for around five days and it’s no picnic.

I’ve been trying to keep a dream book for a while and interestingly, the effort has provoked more dreaming than I can remember for years. Dreams are like poems, or bits and pieces of them.

Shattered people are best represented by bits and pieces. Rainer-Maria Rilke.  I know this to be true. I have never in my life been able to sustain a continuous narrative.

My lover was in his shoes in the dream, but I couldn’t see him. I wrote down the bits and pieces  I could remember, and then the phrase ” erotic vulnerability” dropped into my head from out of nowhere so I wrote that down too. A writer ought to jot down everything, no matter how disparate the bits and pieces might seem at first blush.

After that I could no longer ignore what I was trying to avoid. I was having one of the worst feelings I’ve ever felt in my life. It was a feeling of the most abject, and infinitely lonely desolation. I was looking into an abyss, but it was inside me. The abyss was filled with the miasma of all the grieving I have never done.

I did what I was taught to do, and let the feeling linger for as long as it wanted. That made my day difficult, trying to be ordinary as all the while this dark, dank grief came over me in minor thirds.

The grief wasn’t about my lover. It felt as old as the world. Yet somehow, his dirty black square-toed shoes took me right into it. I forget, sometimes, the unsaid things we do for one another, without even knowing that we do them.

The next day the feeling was mostly gone. Only a few miasmic wisps remained. I thought, well, that’s interesting. I’ve felt the most abject feeling of utter desolation that I’ve ever felt in my life. For a whole day I looked into the abyss, and it didn’t, as I’ve always feared, kill me.

Childhood sexual abuse damages the soul. I don’t use that word in a religious sense. I use it to describe the sense of oneself that is forbidden to a child who is sexually abused. The sense of me. Sometimes a child has little chance to form that sense of me, if the abuse begins very early.  Sometimes the task is to restore it after the damage.

It never crossed my mind that I might find a fragment of me in the abyss.

I have been in the garden, sitting under the mango tree beside Big Dog’s grave. Of course, on my way barefoot across the grass  I trod on a bee.

I don’t know what will happen next.  The abyss will probably be there again some time. These things never entirely leave us. We are shattered people and we are best represented by bits and pieces. Sufficient unto the day.



10 Jan

This was your heart
This swarm of flies
This was once your mouth
This bowl of lies… Leonard Cohen, “Nevermind”

For weeks now, months even, I’ve been thinking about lies.

My childhood was steeped in the lies of the adults closest to me, and I think this has left me with a visceral horror, even terror, of being lied to and/or about.

The worst lies are the ones intended to eradicate  your history, to rewrite events as you’ve known them, the lies that deny your experience and leave you shaken, uncertain of the trustworthiness of your own perceptions. These lies can be personal, and they can be political. They can be lies of omission and commission, they can be half-truths, or they can contain just enough of the truth to be almost incontestable. Perhaps these last lies are the worst of all.

I don’t know if lies, lying, and being lied to and about is as important in our culture as it once was, or if it has always been as unremarkable as it seems to be now. Was there ever really a time when a person’s word was all that was required, and if that word was broken the offender was ostracised? Or did such an idealised moral code of an individual’s responsibility to speak the truth exist only in romantic novels?

And when someone lies about you or about events you have shared, the sense of helplessness and rage at the injustice of such lying can mess with your head for quite a long time. Personally and politically, individually and collectively, lies are at the root of all injustice.

I would rather know the worst truth than be told a lie. Fighting my way out of a childhood that consisted almost entirely of lies has left me with a hunger for truth that is quite likely excessive. It’s made me forensic. But I do believe lies have the power to destroy the liar and the lied to, whether the lies are personal or political. Lies erode trust, and without trust we are nothing to one another, we live as empty shells, bereft of intimacy, lonely and alone.

I always thought the Rolling Stones song was about the loneliness and lovelessness of lies:

And you can send me dead flowers every morning
Send me dead flowers by the mail
Send me dead flowers to my wedding
And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave



dead flowers

Missing Big Dog.

2 Jan

Big Dog

This is the first time we’ve been in the Snowy Mountains without our Big Dog, who died a few weeks ago after fourteen years with us.

On the drive down we reminisced and cried a bit at all the places we drove through where we used to stop to let him run and pee and drink, before loading him back in the car and continuing further south. Here, in the house where we always stay, there’s an empty space where his bed used to be and his absence is so strong it’s a presence.

Big Dog loved the mountain air, especially as he got older and his lungs packed up. The only thing I miss about home just now is looking out the kitchen window at his grave under the mango tree. Home is hot, wet, humid, and there are mosquitos so there’s not a lot to miss compared to this:

Cascades Track

Whenever I came home Big Dog would take my forearm gently in his mouth between his great big teeth and softly gnaw me. That was him saying hello! I’m so glad you’re back! It’s wonderful to see you! I’ve missed you so much!

I can honestly say I’ve never known a human who’d do that for me.

The mountains are for me a place of reflection, self-accounting and deep contemplation. Each time I come here I never want to leave. I think it was Seneca who recommended that we take time every night to recall the events of the day and fall asleep at peace with them. This, he claimed, is our preparation for death, so that we leave the world as we’ve left each day, as settled as possible with the events of our lives.

In a small way I understood this with Big Dog’s death. We had a few days to prepare ourselves, to make it the best death possible for him after a long, honourable life filled with love and affection. We know he did his best with his life and that we did our best with his life and death as well. I don’t know if this counts for much in the scheme of things, but it seems significant.

We don’t have anything of value other than our lives. The rest is dross. Know thyself, says Plato through Socrates, and what that means, I think, is that the more knowledge I have of myself, the less likely I am to do harm to others, and the more willing and able  I am to make amends for the harm I inevitably do.

But anyway. Look at this and lift your eyes unto the hills, and good wishes for this brand new year.

Cascades Track Two

On being irresistible

31 Dec

Perhaps I’m contrary and ungrateful but I never felt good about being told by a lover  “You are irresistible.” I’d much rather he or she said something like  “I can’t resist you” and in that utterance, joyfully assumed the burden of supernatural compulsion instead of burdening me with it.

It would also be much more honest if things went wrong and my lover said “I now can/must resist you because my wife caught me, or I found someone else, or I’ve changed my mind” or whatever event provoked a change in his or her assessment of the situation. Instead of undermining my sense of myself with their change of heart, the responsibility then properly rests with the one whose desires, for whatever reason, have shifted.

I’ve never in my life found anyone to be irresistible. I’ve been overwhelmed by desire, overwhelmed by love, overwhelmed by seriously significant stupidity, but overwhelmed by my own sensations, the agent of my own downfall, not a victim subjected to another’s supernatural powers. In the end this matters, this sense that if I am drowning in love and desire, however recklessly, I am doing my own drowning the other isn’t bewitching me into it.

This may seem like unimportant hair-splitting carping, but it’s actually about taking responsibility, and empowerment. The statement “You are irresistible” gives the other all the power, and denies me the opportunity to take responsibility for my own actions. “I can’t resist you” takes all responsibility, and taking honest responsibility always empowers. The inability to resist is not in itself a negative thing. Denying it as part of one’s character might well be.

And there is something endearing about a human being who can admit an inability to resist as an aspect of his or her own self, rather than it being the fault of an irresistible other.

For women, being thought irresistible has caused and continues to cause us no end of grief, abuse, and in some instances, death. If we are credited with supernatural powers, we will also be made to pay for them. Excessive restrictions are placed on our freedoms in an effort to contain and control our perceived potentially uncontrollable natures. Those who abuse us may be leniently viewed in the light of our magically seductive powers. At its crudest, the irresistibility narrative says wearing short skirts will make men rape us, and there is a continuum from there. Telling a woman she’s irresistible is always an abdication of responsibility. You can’t resist her. It’s your thing, not hers. Own it.

End of rant.

Happy New Year.






Flanagan. Rachmaninoff. The Dog.

22 Nov

Richard Flanagan may well be the only writer in the history of the prestigious prize to win the Man Booker, and be nominated for the worst sex scene in fiction in the same book by the London Literary Review, in the same week. The scene is in The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and involves “circumnavigating” lovers being interrupted in their coitus by a dog with a dead fairy penguin in its mouth. I have to agree, it isn’t one of the book’s best bits.

Flanagan is interested in desire, the myriad ways in which it might manifest, the unforeseen consequences when it is lost, repressed or denied, and when it is fulfilled. I first felt the impact of the author’s reflections on this topic when I read his 2008 novel Wanting in which he dissects the complex desires of Lady Jane Franklin and her explorer husband Sir John, as well as those of Charles Dickens for his mistress, Ellen Ternan. I thought the link between Dickens and the Franklins a tenuous one on which to hang the novel, but Flanagan has such insight into the human condition I can forgive him almost anything.

In The Narrow Road, protagonist Dorrigo Evans enters into what is to become a long, unsatisfactory but absolutely binding marriage that creates in him “the most complete and unassailable loneliness, so loud a solitude that he sought to crack its ringing silence again and again with yet another woman.” The presence of the absent woman he deeply loved and lost has shaped his life and his marriage: “As a meteorite strike long ago explains the large lake now, so Amy’s absence shaped everything, even when – and sometimes particularly when – he wasn’t thinking of her.”  Yes.

It takes determination to stay with the descriptions of life in the Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma railway, and yet it would be cowardly to turn away from knowledge of what humans perpetrate on one another, what can be survived, and how desperate the desire for survival can become in conditions where one would imagine death to be a better option. Oh, he is a fine, fine writer is Flanagan.

Narrow Road to the Deep North


It’s been about ten years since I last listened to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor. I came across the CD this morning, put it in the player and lay down on the floor to listen. It’s a big, dramatic concerto with surging melodies, rhapsodic in nature, and has at times been dismissed by critics because of its “gushing” romanticism and alleged lack of subtlety. It’s been used in a remarkable variety of films, including David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch, Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, and Japanese anime. I don’t know how it became so familiar to me, but when I listened again after so long, I knew it as well as if I’d been listening to it every day. It is, I think, quite beautiful. There was a tosser in the seventies who used one of the themes for his popular song, All By Myself, for which he should have been hung.




And finally, today has been a very sad day. Our vet Terry, Mrs Chook and I decided it’s time to say goodbye to our old Big Dog. He’s fourteen, almost blind, full of arthritis, deaf as a post and Terry says his lungs are fucked. I did tell him to stop smoking but would he listen? We have him till Wednesday, and after that he’ll be under the mango tree in the back yard. He’s a ripper dog, Terry always says. I don’t quite know how we’ll get used to being without him.

The smiling dog.

How to say I lub you

21 Nov

If you want to read these posts in order start at the last one in the category Adultery titled: Certain Dark Things. Or “Infidelity” at the top of the home page.

Lub you

Speech Acts: verbal assurances and promises which seem not only to refer to a speaking relationship but constitute a moral bond between speakers.  Judith Butler


 The three-year-old sat on her lap and said he was going to teach her how to say “I lub you” without using her words. He pointed to his eyes. He folded his small hands across his heart. He took one hand from his heart and held it palm up towards her. See, he said. Now do it to me. She pointed to her eyes. She folded her hands across her heart. And then she handed him her heart in the palms of her hands. Do it again, he said. Lub me again. Pease.

Her lover has said I love you more times than she could ever count. Oh, Lordy yes I love you, he says if she needs reassurance. Sometimes he writes ditto when she tells him she loves him, but he stopped that when she told him it wasn’t very appealing. Instead he wrote, and I you. I adore you, she wrote and he always replied, and I you. Every bit of me loves every bit of you, she told him. Aaaah, he sighed. And I you. You know I love you, he says. I told you. She has to explain to him that although she knows, she likes to hear it because they aren’t physically together and can’t show their love. They have to say it. Ah, he says. I see what you mean. Sometimes she thinks he is a little slow in these matters. Though willing.

Her husband told her he loved her about ten times a day. And every single time it had meaning. How did he manage that, she wonders.

I love you is a speech act. It constitutes a moral bond between speakers.


 It is September. She’s in the pool. It takes perhaps fifteen minutes of swimming laps before she feels completely at one with the water. This is why she does it, for the sensation of pushing effortlessly through aquamarine liquid velvet. Lifting her head to see the thick bush surrounding the pool, the blue sky streaked with high white cloud. The weightlessness and grace of the human body in the foreign, watery element. The aquamarine is her birthstone. She has a ring she can no longer find, a pale blue gem with a small diamond either side of it, set in white gold.

As she swims she thinks of her lover, he has written to her that morning telling her he has begun the process of encouraging his wife to go away on trips without him. They usually do everything together, he’s told her, like everyone else they know. His wife is reluctant, he says, and he has faced much opposition, but he needs this to happen so that it will not seem strange to the family when he wants to go away alone to be with his lover. What a pity the timing doesn’t work for his lover, they could have spent the days his wife is absent together without fear of arousing suspicion, but it was such short notice, and she has already arranged to be with her family and their babies.

“This was a sudden thing,” he writes. “It only happened at all because I strongly encouraged it over opposition and great reluctance, thinking that it was a first step to establishing the idea of doing things alone. At least,” he writes, “we can have phone calls at nice and unusual times like early morning and bedtime, while my wife is gone.”

He has recently persuaded her to be sexual with him on the phone. She’s not at all sure about it. It’s exciting at the time but when the call ends she feels an aching loneliness and a sense of having done something she didn’t really want to do. Not long after they’ve begun this experiment she stops it. It would be different, she tells him, if they were living together and separated for a while and the phone was an interim measure. But they are separate most of the time. Being separated from the man she loves more than she is with him is an entirely new experience. She is used to being a wife.

He can feel her, he tells her. It is her hand holding his cock, not his. Her hand stroking his nipples, her finger tracing the ridge between his balls. She is his first thought when he wakes, he tells her, his last before he falls asleep, and when he wakes in the night she is there.

You say you’ve gone away from me but I can feel you, feel you when you breathe…

As she swims she thinks two things. She thinks how glad she is that he wants to be with her so badly he will instigate long-term plans to change the whole pattern of his married life. The other thing she thinks is how manipulative he must be to be able to convince his wife it will be good for her to go away without him, when his real motive is to re-educate her so he can take time away to be with his mistress. She allows the first thought to push the second off the edge of an escarpment, into a bottomless abyss.


 Once she knew a man who taught her to use all her senses from her heart. She learned to see with her heart, feel, taste, smell, and hear with her heart. It’s not always safe, he warned her. There are circumstances in which the heart ought to be left out of things. While she can tell if a situation is obviously not one she wants to experience so fully, she’s not very good at judging the more subtle scenes.

When she first met her lover her heart was feeding all her senses, and she thought nothing of it. The sight of him leaning against the wall waiting for her, the shape of his body, the height of him, the pull of him, were all noted by senses rich with her heart’s energy. Long before she knew anything with her mind, her heart and all her senses whispered, I lub you. She handed him her heart in the palm of her hands, and she didn’t even know she’d done it. A moral bond. I lub you.


 For months, a year, and for more months, she protects him. She does without most of what she would really like to have, in order to protect him. She has no idea why she has entered into this agreement to protect him. Sometimes, she loses patience and threatens to tell his wife. She knows she never will. He knows she never will. He trusts her absolutely to protect him. She gives him the great gift of absolute trust in her. Because I love you is a moral bond.


 She tucks the three-year-old into his bed. Giddy, he says, that’s what he calls her, Giddy, will you sleep in my bed for a little while? He scoots over to make room. She lies down, and curves her body around his. In moments he’s asleep. She lies with him for a long time, listening to the night birds, watching the full moon rise over the mountains, hoping his small, strong body can help her heal herself. In her worst moments, when she wakes into terror, she thinks of her lover and then she thinks of this little boy. He has her smile. He has her scowl. He has their hearts in the palm of his hand. Lub me again, Giddy, he says. Pease.

Remember that words, the right and true words, have the power of deeds. Raymond Carver.


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