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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.

 

Lies

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.

 

irresistible

 

 

 

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.

 

Rachmaninoff

 

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.

Desire, and good men

17 Nov

wings-of-desire-title

 

My lover writes to me: So, we discover another everyday thing that we charge with sexuality. I would love to soap you all over in the shower. Your back, your legs, your arse, your cunt, your belly, and linger long over your breasts…

There is an erotic book by Cameron S. Redfern titled “Landscape with Animals,” that tells of her affair with a married man. Redfern is the pseudonym of Sonya Hartnett, author of novels classified quite wrongly in my opinion as young adult fiction.

The affair is initiated by the single woman who is described as unashamedly predatory, and utterly determined to have him. This is both a subversion of the heterosexual dance of infidelity in which the woman is pursued by the married man, and a repetition of the myth of woman as sexual temptress who, like Eve in the garden, brings the man to ruin by offering him knowledge neither of them, according to the rules of the culture in which they live, ought to have.

The married lover in the book is portrayed as a good, gentle, honourable man, who loves his wife and children. He succumbs, but not before he announces to his mistress and to himself, “I am doomed.”

When I read those words I remembered how my married lover (who pursued me, then accused me of the crime of “irresistibility” thereby having it both ways) told me, “I am ruined,” referring to the effects of our affair. And yet, torn, he writes:

Being with you gives me pleasure, gratitude, happiness, amazement, delight, wonder, excitement. It gives me succour and strength and a new lease on life. I need to see you. I need to be in bed with you on a Sunday morning…

The doom and ruin are offset by the extraordinary knowledge found in the discovery and exploration of sexuality and sensuality that at the same time seriously threaten the established order of marriage and family life. Freud was onto this in his “Civilisation and its Discontents” in which he explores the conflict between what he calls the pleasure principle and the reality principle. It is necessary, he argues, for the desire for pleasure, especially sexual pleasure, to be repressed in order for civilisation as we have constructed it to survive. Desire realised for anyone other than the partner will cause destruction to varying degrees, threatening the foundations of monogamous relationship on which our culture rests.

Is it morally wrong for an individual to desire the expression of sexual and sensual aspects of him or herself that have been repressed and unrealised?

I’ve long held a theory that the rule of monogamy, as with many other societal restrictions, is enacted in an effort to bypass difficult emotions, in this case jealousy and deep hurt. Morality is merely the sign language of the emotions, Nietzsche argued. That is, we construct our moral codes not from our rational mind but from our feelings, reactively. I do not like the way this makes me feel therefore it is morally wrong. Infidelity may bring pain, discord and even destruction, but why do we declare all of these uncomfortable experiences to be morally wrong?

He writes before we meet: I want to fuck you physically so badly it hurts…

The fear of doom and ruin expressed by both men is complex. Goodness, gentleness and honour are qualities both identify and value in themselves. The deceit and betrayal of an extra marital affair will make it difficult to maintain that self-image. “I was a good person,” my lover told me, “I want to go back to being that good person.” But of course it was much too late, and one can never go back to the person one was before significant events. The whole point of significant events, it could be argued, is to move one along and if one stays stuck, the universe has done its best.

Both men fear the doom and ruin of their marriages and their families, as well as of themselves, as if their personal ruin must terminally ruin the lives of those who are close to them. Yet none of this prevents them pursuing their goal, so powerful is their desire to experience themselves, to discover who they are in the bed of the other woman.

We are so deep in such complexities, he writes. I could (and do) desire you an infinite amount but still be mentally ravaged by guilt feelings about my wife and family. You are my second wife. That sums it up. I so loved hearing your voice. Don’t have any idea how to deal with this terrible tangle we are in…

Whenever my lover spoke to me of his distress at having ceased to be a good man as a consequence of his love for me, I would tell him that none of us is entirely good or bad, that we find a temporary point on a continuum, move further towards one end or the other, then back again, and again, and this is how we live out our lives on earth. I had no interest or belief in his self-described goodness. If we are indeed “good,” we will never deny the capacity for “badness” that resides within every one of us and may emerge at any time, given the right circumstances. To define myself as “good” limits my human potential. Inside me, there is the possibility of everything.

I would rather you were real than good, I told him.

Then I thought of Freud. Sexuality unconfined by monogamy is bad because it risks the destruction of civilisation. Reality, which demands repression and denial, is good and will enable civilisation as we have constructed it to continue. I don’t think Freud was necessarily in agreement with the way society is constructed, given how he laboured to uncover and defang repression, but I think his observations are accurate. Desire is the most powerful of all the transgressors. It will not be denied without inflicting terrible individual and collective suffering, and it may not be expressed in our monogamous culture without risking the infliction of terrible suffering. I was his second wife, he said, but there is no place for a second wife in a monogamous society.

Do you love me? I ask

Oh, Lordy, yes, I love you. You know I do. I told you.

DCF 1.0

 

 

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