Sunday, January 26, 2014

Finish your shit


‘Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise.’ 

I heard these words on the radio recently.  Someone was describing a book shop in France, called Shakespeare and Co, and these words among others are inscribed on one of its walls. 

The gist of the quote may have had its origins in the bible; I can’t say for sure, but the meaning captures me. For one thing the level of compassion called for – be not inhospitable – hooks onto a degree of self interest, self interest that’s hinted at in the words ‘lest they be angels in disguise’.
 
Is it that we do well not to harm angels because they look after us or because they can become avenging angels?

I had a guardian angel as a child.  She hovered behind me whenever I became aware of myself. 

There was a laneway over the street in Wentworth Avenue that ran along the back of a line of shops on Canterbury Road.  In my memory my guardian angel appears along this lane way - for no other reason than I associate people with places.  And this is the place that pops into my mind when I think of my angel.  

My guardian angel belongs to the blue cobblestone secrecy of a lane that backed onto concreted driveways where shopkeepers kept their cars and their bicycles.  

The back of the shops looked to me then as they appear today like the rear end of people, not something we spend too long admiring.  The rear view is never so appealing as the front view with its shop windows and inviting fa├žade. 

This laneway also provided what seemed like a short cut to the park that filled the dip of Canterbury Road beside the bridge and between the railway tracks and the station.  

In this park as a small child I encountered many a paedophile, only I did not think of them as paedophiles then.  To me and my younger sister they were simply ‘dirty old men’, somewhat harmless to my mind then and not always old, whom we did our best to avoid. 

Fear was not part of the equation in the outside world; fear belonged at home. 

I have been searching for a new theme to preoccupy my mind.  A new approach to the world that will sweep me up in much the way I have been preoccupied these past ten years with the concerns of my earlier life.  

Nothing comes.  I keep drawing a blank.  There are too many incidentals, too many possible leads.  I cannot go in any one direction without something else calling me over. 

Recently, I read a list of advice for writers.  There is so much advice for writers on the Internet, but this one appealed because the writer emphasised the need to follow your own ideas first and foremost.  What works for one will not necessarily work for you.  

Towards the end of the list the writer included these words over and over:
‘Finish your shit.  Finish your shit.  Finish your shit.’

These words have haunted me since.  

I've posted this image before, a gargoyle from the Shillington schoolhouse in England.  He seems to be urging some sort of response.  



I am a master of unfinished business.  I can rationalize that this is the nature of life; everything remains essentially unfinished until you are dead and even then memories live on in others. 

Events from your life leach into the lives of others, the next generation ad infinitum, and the cycle keeps repeating itself. 

But I cannot get far with such rationalizations, for I know I have a tendency to begin and then to abandon.  I have the greatest difficulty of all with endings.  I can begin a story and move along comfortably until a plea for closure, or a call for some sort of epiphany pulls me up.
 
You must find a reason for what you are saying.  There must be a point to this story, a reason for the telling, subtle perhaps, subtle preferably, but nevertheless obvious enough to offer satisfaction.
 
And as in all my stories, as in all my blogposts, I wind up almost mid sentence, lost for words.  

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Public or private?


I saw the picture of a still born baby of twenty weeks on someone’s blog yesterday.  The folks at Mamamia put it up in the interests of helping people who have suffered a miscarriage.  

It shocked me and clearly, not only me. The editors at Mamamia equivocated about putting up the pictures as well. 

There’s something devastating and surreal about the sight of such a tiny underdeveloped baby, one who should still be inside his mother’s womb and alive, not outside in the world before-term and dead.
 
I do not oppose the publication of such images on line because something tells me the motive behind their publication is not one of inducing gratuitous shock.  It's more an effort to help people share the load of their grief.

So many horrible things are otherwise veiled in secrecy and hidden from the public view.  People must bear the worst of it alone. 

My own miscarriage happened when my baby was only ten weeks into life.  There was no foetus to be seen.  It was no less traumatic for me for that, but to get to twenty weeks and lose a baby would have to be worse.  The further into a pregnancy, the more alive that baby becomes in one’s imagination, and to lose a baby full term must be worst of all. 

But why compare these events?   They are all ghastly in their own right.  The thing about this woman publishing the photos from her still born baby’s brief stay in the world is meaningful in a world where many would prefer not to know the details.  While others search for them.  
 
I had an email recently from a woman who read some of my writing and cannot understand my motives for writing about the traumatic events from my childhood and my attempts now as an adult to understand them through my writing.  She believes my musings belong in a diary or journal.  They are not for publication.
 
Clearly, there’s a whole range of views about what is fit for the public view and what should stay private.  

As one who comes from an incestuous family, I lean towards more exposure of these things in the public view because too much secrecy can be dangerous.  Witness Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers of renown.
 
I also recognise the wish I felt when I saw that unborn baby not yet ready for the world, my wish to turn away, and not to see something so disturbing, so raw, so unprocessed. 

And then there’s all this derision for those who take selfies and put them online, particularly, the pretty young women.  Narcissism, the critics say.  On the other hand, it seems it’s okay for any other person to take a self portrait, including centuries of artists who have recreated their self images as one of least difficult ways to get a model and so practice their craft.
 
Narcissism or artistry?  Catharsis or gratuitous shocking of unwitting and unwilling others?  

Who knows?  As far as I can tell, the jury is still undecided.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Sins of impure thought


My grandsons stayed overnight during the past couple of days.  At bath time – a bath time of sorts, a puddle of water in the base of the bath on which the two paddled mechanized ducks – I noticed how reluctant the older boy was to take off his clothes.  This compared to his younger brother of two years, who has no shame or modesty.
 
I put those words together effortlessly, shame and modesty.
 
Why be ashamed of your body?  What drives my grandson as a six-year-old, and not even into the hormonal stirrings of pre-adolescence, to want to hide his penis from others?

I remember the sensation as a thirteen-year-old; my mortification when my older sister insisted I should not try to change my clothes in private.  My desperation when all the cubicles at the swimming pool change rooms were occupied and I was forced to change out of my bathers in public.

Others did not mind.  Others were okay with standing there naked to towel themselves dry.  Others bent over to pick up clothes, unabashed by their nakedness, but I had decided early on that it was shameful, my body was shameful and needed to be kept hidden.

There are those who might suggest my shame comes out of some sort of desire frustrated, to use a technical term, out of ‘repressed libido’.  The excitement of looking at naked bodies,  as I did so often in those days when I was a child .
 
I scanned the pages of my father’s art books under cover, hidden beneath layers of blankets so that no one else, none of my siblings, might see what I was up to.
 
What was I up to?  Looking at naked men and women in old fashioned settings with bits of material draped over strategic bits, the occasional fig leaf, but enough nakedness revealed to send shivers of excitement through me. 

I did not understand my excited pleasure but I recognised it as wrong. 

By the time I was my older grandson’s age I had begun preparations for my first confession and first communion.  The nuns took us to the priest who taught us about the nature of sin.  Sins like stealing and telling lies.
 
Such tame and obvious sins did not trouble me, but the priest gave a name to my excitement under the blankets with my father’s borrowed art books.  

He called mine the sin of impure thoughts.  And impure thoughts were worse even than stealing ten pounds.  They were worse even than even the biggest of lies.
 
Whether it is true or not, in terms of Catholic doctrine, in my mind it became true: impure thoughts constituted mortal sins, and mortal sins were dangerous indeed.  

Die with a mortal sin on your soul and you will be banished to hell forever.  Die with a mortal sin and you can never enter the kingdom of heaven. 

By the time I was eight years old I agonized over these incessant sins to the point where I imagined God’s pointed finger burning red at the tip in my direction, but I could not bring myself to tell the priest about my impure thoughts in the confessional. 

I could not bear to tell the priest things that I feared might not only cause him to despise me, but might also stir him up. 

Somehow, I knew about that strange contagion of desire; the way looking and being seen, listening and telling could evoke powerful responses in the others. 

What could I do?  My sins of impure thought weighed me down as if I were carrying lead, like the silver grey lump that rested on a bench in my father’s workshop; a lump of lead, poisonous my brothers told me, and too heavy for us to carry.
 
How could I be rid of this sin? 

Then I heard about novenas, and relief from sin, of all kinds and degrees of severity, when a person goes to mass on the first Friday of every month for nine months. 

How I managed to get to the first Friday of every month Mass as a ten year old, I cannot fathom, but in my memory I managed it.  I most likely went along with my sister. She was busy getting up early most mornings by then to avoid our father’s visits in the night. 

She and I went to early Mass together. In those days daily seven o’clock Mass was commonplace.  She and I walked together to mass to cleanse our souls; she for what was done to her, and me, for what I might do to others.  

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Glory be to God for dappled things.



Years ago, in the days when most communications, other than over the telephone, came in the form of mail through the post, I received an unprepossessing post card, dolphins leaping through waves? Some friend on holidays had sent it, I imagined, until I read the words scrawled on the card.
 
Les Murray, who at that time was literary editor for Quadrant had decided to accept my story, ‘Hold on’ for publication in his magazine.  No matter that Quadrant was renowned as a right wing magazine, I had finally had a story accepted for publication.  I was a writer at last.  A published writer. 

It was official. 


The pleasure of being published that day was more profound than for any publication since, but every time someone agrees to publish something I have written, I am filled with some of the same pleasure; short lived as it may be.
 
Anne Lamott in her book, Bird by Bird, writes about the way in which, until your writing is published, you imagine your whole life will be completely different, and better, for evermore after publication.  And then it happens.  Something gets published, but your whole world does not change. 

At least, not simply because of the writing. 

Our lives change, as inevitably as day follows night, but the changes come about through things other than writing, at least they have for me, and yet here I am stuck in this fantasy of wondering what it will be like once my book gets accepted for publication.  
 
I pinch myself.  My book is still not quite ready to send out.  Nearly ready, but who will want it, if anyone?

That same dreaded fear of rejection; that same secret longing; that same hideous sense that someone will read my writing and say, ‘Sorry, no market here.  Nothing of interest to the general public.  Interesting perhaps, but not of interest to us.’

This morning as I hung out the sheets, I considered my wish that I be like Gerard Manly Hopkins.  An English poet and Jesuit priest, he wrote for the love of God - as in his 1918 poem, 'Pied Beauty' with its fine first line: Glory be to God for dappled things - or so he believed, or would have us believe.  

Publication was not within his desire.  He wrote for the glory of God and given that God knew and read everything, Hopkins always had a ready and willing audience.  

I can’t say the same for me.  For my own writing.  I have no God-like audience, only a few people who visit my blog and others unknown to me who might read my writing in hard copy or elsewhere online. 
But if I can get this book of mine out into the published world, then life will be different – or will it?

 

I’m not quite at the age where I imagine that every new year that dawns might be my last, though of course it could be.  

Last night at midnight we went outdoors onto our street, which sits atop a hill across from the city, to admire the fireworks.  

We do this every New Years Eve, the highlight of our efforts at acknowledging the birth of a new year.
 
Our daughters laugh at us.  It’s hardly inspirational to go out onto the street and dodge the trams of Riversdale Road and the few cars that flash by and honk their horns in greeting.  But for us it’s enough.
 
The lights over the city were glorious, better this year for the weather I expect.  A calm cool evening without even a gentle breeze.  

I had also avoided too many drinks as I might sometimes do by way of New Years Eve celebrations as I needed to collect our youngest from a New Years Eve party in the wee hours of the morning. 

As it was, she called me at three.  Normally, she might catch a taxi but they’re hard to come by on New Years Eve, besides, she, like her sisters, hates to catch taxis when she’s the only one travelling.  

Young women in taxis late at night are vulnerable and easy prey, especially if they have been drinking.
 
I decided I would rest easier if I could instead collect her from her party, even if it interfered with a reasonable bedtime post midnight on New Years Eve.
 
So I’m up late this morning, filled with a fresh desire to perfect my book.
 
Happy New Year to all my blogging friends.