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The Circular Ruins

24 Apr

Prince Quote

 

In an effort to rid myself yet again of the mother of all ear worms, Prince’s Purple Rain, I turned this morning to Jacqueline du Pré’s performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, which decision brought with it a whole other unanticipated spectrum of matters to do with grief and loss.

My late husband, Arnie, decided in his seventies to take up the cello. This was after the guitar and the ukulele, and contiguous with Hebrew lessons and teaching Shakespeare’s comedies at U3A.

His cello playing was excruciatingly awful, yet he bent to his task as if he were Yo-Yo Ma.

I can’t hear a cello without seeing Arnie, lost in the joyous experience of wresting music from the instrument, so engrossed in his mission as to be entirely oblivious to the tortuously mangled sound he actually produced.

There is the manner in which we mourn for the ones we loved but did not know, such as Prince, Bowie, and for me James Gandolfini whom I still miss, and when Leonard Cohen leaves I don’t know what I’ll do. And then there is the manner in which we grieve for our partners. The former is a but a pale imitation of  the latter, nevertheless, it has the power to evoke the devastating loss of far more powerful and intimate loves.

Each of us finds our own way to live with our grieving, because what else is there to do?  Yesterday I found myself re-reading a story by Jorge Luis Borges, The Circular Ruins, about a man who dreams a man, only to understand that he himself is the product of yet another man’s dream. Borges begins with a quote from Through the Looking Glass VI : And if he left off dreaming about you…

I read this story again because it was one that delighted Arnie, he read it to me many times. I wanted to read it through his eyes, I wanted to understand why it so delighted him.

I wanted to be with him again. Which of course, I can never be.

The enormity of loss and grief makes itself evident intermittently. Were it otherwise, it would be intolerable. We must get through this thing called life.

But if we leave off dreaming about them…?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Down among the women

22 Mar

Raising sons like daughters

 

Our family’s four-year-old had his tonsils removed last week. We didn’t have much notice, there was an opening in the operating schedule and by Friday the wretched body parts that have plagued him for most of his short life were gone.

His dad had a long-standing arrangement to be away for the weekend. There’s a three-year-old, and six month-old Mabel Jane. So Mrs Chook and I went to the mountain to help out.

It’s quite some years since I’ve been in a women and young children only situation such as that one. I don’t want to start a gender war but the reality is, there’s a different vibe. For a start, everybody knew what to do without being asked. If there was washing, it got folded. If there was shopping someone went to the supermarket when a child was sleeping. When food was needed, somebody got it together. There was one woman for each child, a perfect ratio especially when a child is as sore and sorrowful as Archie.  I don’t know where I am, Giddy, he wept, as I lifted him out of the car when he came home.

There was always a hip available for Mabel Jane if she got fractious. There was someone to distract Ted when he claimed to be poorly and needing the doctor like his brother. The sick child spent the nights in his mother’s bed, while I slept in Ted’s room with the baby and Mrs Chook next door, and the broken sleep was shared around.

I don’t want to claim that only women can manage these things, or that all women can or want to manage these things. Neither am I claiming that men can’t do this kind of caring. What I am saying is that there was a particular connection between us that I’ve never experienced between women when a man is present. What I’m also saying is that this is a powerful and significant connection, and I don’t want us to ever lose our capacity for making it with each other.

I remember this connection from the time when my children were little. Hardly anyone in my female peer group had family available to help, so we assisted each other with reciprocal child care, and time out just to be alone. We got through long days with babies and toddlers by spending them together, women and children, at somebody’s home, in a park, at the local swimming pool. This is where I first learned to bond with women, and at the heart of our bonding was our love for our infants and our shared anxieties about being good mothers.

For me, these times down among the women were and are profoundly feminist experiences. I remain appalled at any feminism that denigrates or dismisses these experiences.

The problem is not the experience itself, but that society demands women carry most of the responsibility for childcare and domestic affairs, without remuneration, without relief and at unacceptable cost to the rest of our lives.  The burden these demands impose on us erodes our capacity for pleasurable connectivity, while denying men the opportunity to enjoy similar experiences.

For mine, sharing the care is fundamental to our species survival. Being down among the women is an experience that teaches almost everything humans need to know. It’s simple, but it isn’t easy.

You don’t have to be a biological parent. You do have to care. And of course you do have to imagine how things might be if sons were raised more like daughters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sisters

14 Mar
The Three Graces. Raphael

The Three Graces. Raphael

 

I have two sisters, well, half-sisters to be accurate: we share a mother and I have a different father.

There’s a considerable age difference between us: I’m fourteen years older than one, and ten years older than the other. Which means our mother was in different stages of her life when she birthed me from when she birthed them. Which means that the three of us have different mothers, and while two of us more or less agree on some of her characteristics, one of us describes her as significantly different from the mother two of us knew.

Interestingly, it is the middle daughter who denies the mother the eldest and the youngest describe.

This is one of the more intriguing aspects of family histories: how can people grow up with the same mother and have wildly conflicting stories? And whose narrative rules?

My youngest sister (who is also a writer ) and I have lately been exchanging emails on this topic of who *owns* family information. Everyone owns her subjective experience, we decided, and if a family member doesn’t agree they are at liberty to write or speak their subjective experience, but one thing that cannot be argued with is subjective experience.

Our mother died ten years ago, but still the disagreements about her character divide us. I live my daily life without much concern for matters about which I can do nothing, but now and again our differences erupt and I’m forced to acknowledge these family sorrows are far from settled.

My initial reaction to an eruption is to lose my temper with everyone because I don’t know how to not care about my sisters and it would be so much easier if I didn’t, and that makes me feel cornered.

But I changed their nappies. I was there when one tipped the other out of her pram and the baby was nearly strangled by the straps that held her in place. I took one on my first holiday with my first boyfriend. I don’t to this day understand how that happened.

One lived with me and my husband when living with our mother got too tricky. During that period, unknown to us, she nurtured weed in many pots hidden behind our garden shed.

I came home one day, eight and a half months pregnant with my second child, and found the house had been burgled. I rang the police who during their robbery investigation found the weed. I had no idea what to do, so while they sat in my kitchen questioning me I perched unsteadily on a stool, sneaking looks at the weed they’d brought in and making chocolate chip cookies.  Standing up was hard. The baby was ten pounds. It was a lot to lug around and at that point in my life I baked things to relieve stress.

We’ll wait till your husband gets here, the detectives said, obviously of the opinion that I was recklessly endangering my unborn child by smoking weed, and I suppose unused to pregnant suspects baking cookies during questioning but obliged by my girth to be tolerant.

Both sisters were present at the birth of this child, and one crouched between my legs and took the photos that are the most powerful images I own.

One of the sisters was then in a separatist feminist phase, and commiserated with me for having brought another male into the world while congratulating me on having eschewed the patriarchal domination of childbirth by giving birth at home.

The history. The love. The distance and the difference. Our subjective experiences with a mother who never wanted to be a mother. I don’t know how much our mothers’ lives determine our own, either in sympathy with or in reaction against. I can see both forces manifesting in our three lives, and I see that whether we fulfil our mothers’ dreams or react fiercely against them, in neither case are we free.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dogs. Mountains. And Writing.

17 Jan

Derrida

 

I emerged from my cave around eleven this morning, after spending the hours from dawn wrangling language and discovering to my immense satisfaction that I’m some 25,000 plus words  into the book I’m writing.

The household was in disarray. Three dogs were lined up outside the glass door that opens onto the verandah, gazing sorrowfully into the kitchen. J, in high dudgeon, told me that the youngest, an Australian Shepherd born without a tail, had found a hole in the fence through which she scrambled into the next property, and then proceeded to chase Farmer Pete’s brown cows all over the paddock.

J managed to get her back, gave her a good slap on the snout and thought that was the end of the matter. But all three dogs, the others border collies, had different plans. The next time J looked over the verandah they were obviously stalking something. She took off down the hill to see what the hell they were up to. They’d stalked and caught a large lizard, and were torturing it to death. She hauled them off and whacked the lot of them, then found she’d have to destroy the poor lizard, who was too badly injured to be left to live. So she found a rock, and did the deed, and buried it under a cairn of stones so the damn dogs can’t do anything else to it.

By this point in the telling, J was in tears. I looked at the dogs through the glass door. This is why you can’t have nice things, I mouthed at them. They wagged their tails at me, except the youngest who hasn’t got one, and she waggled her whole bottom. It was as if I’d mouthed, you are the most beautiful dogs in the entire universe, which is something I might well have said before this morning.

I’m writing this on the verandah, pausing now and then to look at the Snowy Mountains and Lake Jindabyne in the foreground. Three dogs are sleeping around me and I think every one of them is farting. I have no idea what’s going on in the world outside this minuscule part of it, and I don’t much care. I’ve just done a food and drink run into Jindabyne, as that seemed the most useful thing I could contribute at this point.  J is now running a fever, which is a change from me running a fever. There are HUGE flies up here, and yesterday when I was walking by the Thredbo river I stopped for a bush wee and they bit me on the arse. J said they’re March flies. I said what the hell are March flies doing out in January and she said that question was stupid.

I have just re-read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she describes the demented state of mind she experienced after the sudden death of her husband during her daughter’s life-threatening illness. I’m only now beginning to see that the state I experienced after my husband’s death was, actually, demented. Nobody tells you this about grief. Nobody says, you may become demented, you might find yourself doing all kinds of extraordinary things you’ve never done before and you won’t even realise you’re doing them and that’s because grief can make you demented. Well, everybody ought to read Joan Didion’s account of it and prepare themselves. Society does not deal well with the demented bereaved. After the ashes are scattered or the coffin laid in the ground you’re supposed to move on because nobody knows what to do with you. Well, fuck that for a joke.

Now I’ve just eaten a lunch of ripe organic Brie, snow peas, tiny sweet tomatoes and green olives, followed by the most luscious cherries I’ve tasted in years for dessert. J is sleeping. There are thunder clouds building up over the mountains. There are 25,000 more words clamouring to be written. I’m on a deadline. Talk soon.

 

Books. And empty shoes.

28 Dec

Buccholz. Book

 

I am culling books… 

When I come upon a collection of essays by J.M. Coetzee titled Stranger Shores, that I haven’t looked at in quite some time and so had forgotten that it was given to me by my late husband, Arnie, on my birthday, March 15 2005. It contains a piece on Rainer Maria Rilke that sent me gratefully back to the poet, in the way that good essays always invite you somewhere beyond themselves.

The sight of Arnie’s handwriting initially startles, then its power to evoke the man takes over and I’m again lost in that peculiar presence of absence I’ve become familiar with since his death eighteen months ago, in which his absence has an energy vivid as any presence, and more vivid than some presences can ever be.

I’m reminded here of a conversation between myself and a woman in which she confided, in distress and anger, that her husband of some decades didn’t know her. I thought I’d seldom heard anything so sad about a partnership, and how lonely it must be to live a life in which one is not known, a life in which interest and curiosity in a partner is supplanted by assumptions and projections, and the familiarity that breeds contempt.

Not that it’s possible to conclusively know anyone: it’s the desire to engage in the project of discovery that speaks to me of enduring love. I’ve written more about the difference between familiarity and knowing here.

On the first page of Stranger Shores, Arnie has written of his love and affection in Hebrew. At least I’m assuming it’s love and affection as I know little of that language, and there’s what I’m taking to be a translation below the Hebrew that speaks in English of “my beloved wife.”

On the other hand, knowing him, the Hebrew could say anything.

The next thing I think of as I gaze at his spidery handwriting, held in place in my chair by the strength of the presence of his absence, is the haunting image of the empty shoes in Paris.

Empty shoes in Paris. 2015

The empty shoes represent an event that could not be held because of fear of terrorist attacks. They represent the dead and injured victims of those attacks. They symbolise the death of species, and the dying of our planet. They represent loss, and absence of all kinds. They symbolise the grounding of humans on this earth, a major point of contact with the planet, and they are empty.

And they remind me of how the sight of my husband’s empty shoes brought me to my knees, when I finally understood that I would never again see him in them.

I don’t know why shoes apparently carry so much more poignancy than say shirts, or jackets, or trousers. Yet, I remember also when my sons were small and at school how I would pick up their scattered clothing and smell it, to evoke their presence in their absence, a kind of preparation for the time when they would leave for their own lives and loves, and that intense period of mothering, about which I was frequently ambivalent, would be over.

There are other books “For my beloved wife.” One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty. Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Which book I remember him lugging to the hospital on Christmas Day where I lay recovering from drastic cancer surgery, too weakened to even hold the heavy tome, so he showed it to me instead, and read bits that fed my morphine-induced hallucinations and after he left I saw Jesus by the window in shining light, telling me everything would be fine, no worries.

I’m beginning to understand that the people I love never leave me, if I can only learn to allow them to stay. There’s a psychological theory that when we know we can’t be with someone anymore, for whatever reason, we cut off from them and deny their significance, as a way of managing in the long-term the complicated and initially crushing pain of loss.

It’s a sweet sorrow to be sure, to feel the presence of absence, whether that’s the absence of the dead, or the equally irretrievable loss of the little boy who is now a man, and quite rightly does not have need of you in the same ways any longer. They live, those vanished ones, in the memory and the imagination, they live in the body and the heart and the mind. They live in me, though I can’t touch them anymore, and their shoes stand so very empty.

The work of the eyes is done. Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you. Rainer Maria Rilke

On Family.

15 Dec
Mabel Jane with her Great Step Grandfather

Mabel Jane with her Step Great Grandfather

 

The next little while is set to be somewhat frenetic in our household, as in many others, as we prepare for an early Christmas with my family’s little ones, and then a Christmas at the other end of life’s cycle with Mrs Chook’s ninety-year-old Mum and family.

Mrs Chook didn’t have kids and I don’t have a Mum, so we share.

There won’t be much on Sheep, except maybe some bleating about four-year-old Archie’s snoring, sleep talking and aggravated assault of his Giddy after he’s padded his way down the stairs from his bedroom to mine in the middle of the night  and in a stage whisper said “Giddy, can I get in your bed I promise I won’t pee.”

Well, he doesn’t pee, but he does thrash about and hit me in the eye.

A woman called Vicki once said to me, family is everything. I know she was talking about traditional heterosexual families. But for mine, that is a very narrow concept of family, and the fact that it’s heterosexual and traditional is no guarantee of it being any good.

It doesn’t matter how family is constituted: if there’s a group of people who love each other and share their lives, that’s a family. It’s about time this privileging of traditional heterosexual families came to an end.

My extended and blended family recently came together for the naming of our youngest babies, Mabel Jane, called after her late great-grandmother, and her cousin, Audrey Mae.

Mabel Jane & Audrey Mae on their naming day

Audrey Mae & Mabel Jane on their naming day

Mabel Jane brings the total number of grandchildren in this family to twenty. There are second marriages and ex partners and new partners and we all turn up for every wedding and naming and we all get on, regardless of our sometimes chequered histories, and we even get on when we’re pissed, so that’s some indication of how our family is everything to us.

 

Ted at his sister's naming day

Ted at his sister’s naming day

 

What astonishes me is the elasticity of the human heart, as it expands itself to make room for yet one more individual, adult or child, who through birth or commitment enters this family and becomes a member. We may not always like each other all of the time, and some of us wouldn’t want to spend our lives with some of us, but I doubt there’s any one of us who’d turn their back if someone  else was in trouble.

This is not to say some families aren’t shit. My family of origin was unspeakable, so there’s a dark side to the “family is everything” mantra: family can be everything in the worst possible way, haunting you for the rest of your life, and under those circumstances, Christmas is no fun.

If it’s awful I hope with all my heart that it passes quickly for you.

And no matter what combination constitutes your family, however big or small it may be, love one another the best you can, and put the all sharp implements in the high cupboards.

Archie at the party

Archie at the party

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When you can’t say no

3 Sep
The Persistence of Memory Dali

The Persistence of Memory
Dali

 

Long read on a difficult topic.

There’s an abundance of evidence in the literature that women who have been sexually abused in childhood are twice as likely to experience sexual assaults at some later point in our lives, than are women who have not.

The reasons for this are many: an inability to recognise and avoid predators, high risk behaviour, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug use; inability to refuse unwanted sexual contact, inability to behave assertively with a man in a sexual situation, emotional flooding and numbing when in situations of unwanted sexual activity. All these can lead to what is known as “re-victimisation,” and that in turn leads to long-lasting and high levels of psychological distress and compounded trauma, as the re-traumatising impact of the adult abuse adds to and exacerbates that already experienced in childhood.

Somehow, after years of severe CSA I escaped re-victimisation, not by any conscious effort on my part because I was entirely unaware of the perils that can be the consequence of early abuse, but because I didn’t encounter any predators. I had a suite of other significant difficulties to deal with as a result of that childhood, such as trusting people, fear of abandonment, hyper-vigilance, suicidal ideation, anxiety, and the rest, but the re-traumatisation of further sexual assault was not among the obstacles I encountered in my desire to fully live my life, in spite of my childhood.

Until last year, that is, when I became another statistic. Another survivor of CSA who experienced re-victimisation, re-traumatisation, and is now on the long, long road to getting my life back. Again.

I’m reminded here of the Twitter hash tag “ Not all men.” Intended to counter generalisations about men’s behavior, the phrase has been criticized for deflecting conversations from uncomfortable topics, such as sexual assault. Whenever women write and speak about our negative experiences with men, someone inevitably chimes in, “Not all men are like that.” I’ve said it myself, because I’m wary of the stereotyping that is inevitable with gender-based arguments, and I don’t like it when it’s used against women. At the same time, there’s no doubt the phrase is used to derail and distract. Instead of a discussion about sexual assault it becomes a brawl about “not all men do it.” I don’t know how we circumvent this, unless we replace the word “men” with “predators,” when we’re talking about male perpetrated violence against women.

There’s no doubt that not all men are predatory, and the men I encountered for decades posed no threat to me.

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Eerily, the circumstances of last year’s sexual assault almost exactly replicated scenes from my childhood. I continue to be tormented by the possibility that the man had sufficient knowledge about my history to make this deliberate, rather than coincidental. I have written about my childhood in some detail on this blog, and in my PhD, which is online and easily accessible. In fact, at our second meeting the man asked me about my childhood abuse, and it was after I’d briefly answered that he made his first sexual overture.

I’ve never found it easy to speak of those childhood events. Writing, though, is another experience altogether. Writing allows me to make some kind of order from the chaos of that time, and bring the fragments of myself back together into something approaching a whole. We are nothing if not story, and the urge to have our story make sense to us is a powerful one. There’s a necessary discipline in autobiographical writing that allows the author to stand back from the immediate rawness of her own narrative. She becomes an observer and recorder, a witness, bearing testament to her own self. These are skills I acquired to help save myself from annihilation by the dark magnitude of sexual abuse. Stepping back, while at the same time never letting go of her, that child who couldn’t say no.

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The assault last year took place in a car parked in a secluded area, one of my stepfather’s settings of choice when I was a child. I had gone to considerable lengths to ensure that situation, one that had occurred with this man on two previous occasions, was not repeated. The present-day experiences had left me struggling with a crippling distress I didn’t recognise, couldn’t analyse, and had no desire to repeat. I told the man I had been distressed by the sexual encounters in the car, and I didn’t want to do it again. He responded by assuring me that he never wanted to do anything that distressed me, and that the manner in which we next met was entirely up to me. He agreed when I said our next meeting would be in public, and there would be no intimate contact. I resolved that I would use that meeting to end the relationship.

Unfortunately, the man did not respect our agreement, and without any attempt to renegotiate the terms of engagement, drove me to a secluded place. I think it was when I realised he was unnecessarily driving me somewhere that I first began to feel a vague unease. But I had no reason to distrust him. Rather, I distrusted my own feelings.

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Traumatic events can lead to extremes of remembering and forgetting. The events may be remembered with intense vividness, or deeply repressed. Often there’s a combination of both. Traumatic events can remain fixed in the memory just as they occurred, their intensity unassuaged by the passage of time and experience. The extreme emotional arousal experienced in such a situation may account for the unique nature of traumatic memory, as the body’s chemical response to terror interferes with normal memory function.

I had never experienced flashbacks to do with the specific childhood circumstance of my stepfather’s car, though I have over the years struggled with them in other settings. They became increasingly infrequent, until I almost never experienced them at all. The emotional scaffolding of traumatic memory was, I believed, sufficiently disassembled after years of hard work in and out of therapy, and I was free.

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I didn’t like how I’d felt about the sexual encounters in the car with the man. They felt demeaning, but I initially attributed those feelings to the adolescent and unsatisfactory nature of such encounters that I wouldn’t expect, as a mature woman with a long and satisfying partnership behind her, to enjoy.

However, I had not in my life thus far experienced anything that might trigger memories of my stepfather’s sexual assaults on me in his car. I remember on one or two occasions in my life being a passenger in a car with leather seats. The smell of those seats nauseated me, and caused me a strange emotional discomfort, but it wasn’t until years later I remembered my stepfather’s car had leather seats, and I was able to make the connection.

What was necessary for the trigger to become fully operational was that the experience be forced upon me. The unease that started up as the man drove away from where we were supposed to be, became the silent terror I endured when my stepfather picked me up from my boarding school and drove me somewhere I did not want to go, to do things I did not want to do. I was unable even to ask the man where he was going. Already I’d lost touch with the present, and the process of being engulfed by the past had, unbeknown to me, begun.

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Trigger. There’s a term with its fair share of controversy. Last year, in the US, there were demands across many university campuses for trigger warnings to be attached to all manner of texts, so that students would know in advance that some of them contained material that might cause distress. The term “trigger warning’ first appeared in feminist spaces to alert women that topics such as sexual abuse and other forms of violence against women were discussed in these spaces, at times graphically, to give them the opportunity to choose not to go there. Fair enough. This makes sense. However, things got rather out of hand, for mine, when students demanded The Great Gatsby be marked with a trigger warning, and various other kinds of, for mine, silly demands that, like the “not all men” claim, serves to derail and distract from the very serious matters of discussions of violence against women, and the provision of opportunities for women to speak out, in detail if we wish, about what has been done to our bodies, our minds and our hearts. There is a dark world of difference between feeling uncomfortable or disturbed by confronting scenes in literature, and experiencing a flashback.

What is a trigger, then? It’s smell, sight, sound, taste, touch, a circumstance that particularly evokes the memory of a past traumatic event. It results in a flashback that returns the victim to the original trauma, with all the intensity and immediacy of the initial experience. Obviously, triggers are unique to the individual survivor.

A flashback can be visual, when traumatic events are vividly re-seen by the mind’s eye. It can be experienced entirely in the body, with no visual component. The body has its own memories, stored in all its secret places.

The flashback can consist entirely of feelings, with no images attached to them. For me, it is generally the latter, accompanied by bodily sensations. I rarely visualise. I am flooded with overwhelming and chaotic emotions that make no sense in the present, and that paralyse me. I feel a sensation of extreme cold in my belly, and I tremble at my core. My legs feel unusually weak, and I fear they won’t work. Terror dominates, and keeps me physically locked in place. All this is concealed. There are no overt manifestations. As a child I knew I couldn’t show any fear or resistance. I had to comply, while inside me the terror roared and swirled.

These are the things that happened to me last year with the man in the car. It was as if the two earlier encounters were preparatory rumbles, and this third one, compounded by the shock and disbelief of his profound betrayal, his abduction of me against our agreement and my firmly expressed wishes, unleashed the full force of traumatic memory. I could do and say nothing. I couldn’t refuse, and I couldn’t resist. I complied.

The intensity was such that eventually I became numbed, and dissociated. I watched myself take his penis in my mouth and suck until he came, just as I’d done with my stepfather. I saw the leaves of the trees through the windscreen, just as I’d done with my stepfather. I felt nothing, and I felt, chaotically, everything. He moaned, like my stepfather. He even said, repeatedly, “We’re not really doing this,” a phrase so reminiscent of my stepfather’s order that I forget what had happened and tell no one that to this day, I feel shaken by the coincidence.

I told no one for almost twelve months.

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My stepfather, though a violent man in other areas of family life, was never violent with me sexually. Rather he wanted to be a lover, and he wanted me to respond in kind. The man was not violent either. He wanted to be my lover, and he wanted me to respond in kind. They wanted me to enjoy them, and to enjoy myself. I’ve often thought that this deeply corrupted message of “love” and apparent consideration for my enjoyment in circumstances that make enjoyment inconceivable, has messed with my head to such a degree that I will never entirely clear myself of its corruption. They walked softly, and carried the big stick of love and harm made one. They saw me only as a means to their end.

This is characteristic of predators. They are unable to distinguish between love and great harm, and so they perpetrate the latter, while proclaiming the former. There is no firm ground left for you to stand on, once you’ve encountered ambiguities of that complexity.

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As a child I found solace in books, and in music. Later, I found writing. Against all odds I became a reasonably accomplished pianist, I think because when I sat at the piano in some unaccountable way my body became mine again, through the music I made. At every possible opportunity I hid myself away in a practice room, and played. There was an ageing nun at my boarding school who liked to sit beside me, and knit black mittens while she listened. Her presence was comforting, though we rarely spoke more than a few words.

A few weeks ago, struggling with after-effects over which I have little control, I felt a powerful desire to play the piano again, as I haven’t for years. In a fine piece of serendipity a woman round the corner had a piano she didn’t want anymore, and now it’s mine. I have much of my old music, kept since girlhood. When it arrived, I approached the instrument with a great deal of trepidation. What if I couldn’t play anymore?

My fingers are stiff and inflexible, compared to how they used to be. I’m starting with scales and arpeggios. Yet even as I fumble I feel the return of the mysterious force that moves through my fingers and connects my body to the source of sound. I hear the musical possibilities in the mundane and repetitive notes of a scale. I feel the joy of making sound, the satisfaction, humble as the sound I make is. I can’t resist attempting to play a simple piece, though I hear my teacher’s voice telling me I’m not ready yet. A sweet arabesque, and to my delight the fingering comes back to me, it’s still there after all these years, another kind of memory triggered by an altogether different set of circumstances, a welcome memory, a memory that reminds me who I am, and what I can still be.

When you can’t say no, you have no freedom, no agency. You’re anybody’s victim. When you write, when you play music, when you read the text you act with agency, you exercise your freedom. You are a human being, no longer only a means to another’s end.

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Next week, we are expecting our newest family member, who we already know is a little girl. Today I bought pink rompers for her, then I said to her mother on the phone, I had to buy just one pink thing, I don’t know why, I don’t believe in all that stupid stuff, I’m not buying one more pink thing, I swear, just this one.

I want to be here to help teach her everything she needs to know.

I want to be here to read to her.

I want to be here to teach her how to play the piano, should she be so inclined.

I want to be here. That is all.

 

 

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