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Am told my piece for Meanjin has a broken link at the moment so I’m re-posting it here. From the end of last year when I wrote about reading and love affairs…


There’s a small child in the bed with us. I hold the sheet over me and reach down blindly to find clothes on the floor. Under the sheet I slip my underwear and t-shirt back on. So, this is dating now.

One evening I find myself sitting in bed reading Hairy Maclary dog stories to the small child. “Out of the gate and off for a walk, went Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy..”.

It’s not my small child, it’s the son of the man I am seeing. My children are with their father tonight and I’m missing them. The father of this small child is in the living room feeling down. I’m trying not to see that as a bit of an indulgence. And instead, I’m reading to his son and those smalls hands on my arm and a small head rested against my shoulder are bringing a rush of pain to me.

This maternal business, when I’m not with my children, is tearing at careful compartments. But decompartmentalising is this man’s specialty. Out of the gate and off for a walk.

I meet his mother, and then in a rush, his whole family. He wants to meet my children. At first, I believe he’s fearless. He might be wrong for me in several ways but at least he’s fearless.

Last year I read Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. This year I am re-reading it. I mostly re-read books this year because with everything happening in my life – the work, the grief, the rebuilding, the column writing, the conferences, the dating, the parenting, the budgeting, the anxiety and the calming – I can’t read anything new. I just can’t take anything else in. If I am going to consider anything in it has to be something I already know that I just want to understand better, and differently.

I read a lot to my children. They like re-reading books. The storybook I most enjoy re-reading to them is Stanley’s Stick by John Hegley. The rhythm in that book is something else. I marvel at it every time I read it. Every time.

I hardly read anything. Actually, I read constantly, all year, but hardly anything I think appropriate to highlight in a literary journal, like Meanjin. For instance, Twitter. For instance, Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness. I read that over and over again for part of the year, in a ‘dark night of the soul’ kind of way. I read papers and papers for work. I read a Coroner’s report with a fine-tooth comb. About the death of a child the same age as my daughter. Her mother kills her slowly, but quite thoroughly in the end.

She kills her slowly enough that people are wondering now how that happened. When you read the details, I mean really read them and re-read them, you see a lot of unraveling and the mother knows, she knows she’s unraveling. She asks her daughter to cover up the unraveling with her in more and more ludicrous ways. Most children killed by parents die before they develop the power of speech. But this daughter, who can speak and therefore reflect back what she sees in you, tries, reasons but also colludes. She is protecting her mother the way a mother is supposed to protect a child. Children do.

I distill the findings into something concise and lifeless for a report.

While driving home from the coast my own daughter starts reading aloud to her little brother and me from The Pinballs by Betsy Byars. It’s a young adult novel about children in foster care and I read it when I was about her age. Listening to her, I gasp. I forgot how sad this story is, I say. My daughter pauses thoughtfully and agrees before saying it is one of her favourite books.

When I arrive one night he is in a candlelit bath drinking wine, smoking cigarettes and wearing his dead father’s rosary beads around his neck. Even with tears in his eyes he can laugh. You look like something out of a film, I say. And I take some photographs.

Get in the bath, he tells me. And when I have pulled off my clothes and am stepping into the water he says to stop covering myself. We’re not young, don’t worry about it. He says it with such softness that for a moment I think I am falling in love. (You’re younger than me, too young, I think secretly). I hope you change me, he whispers in bed with a kiss. I can’t change you, I can only be with you while you change yourself, I reply. I guess, he says.

I read The Culture of the New Capitalism by Richard Sennett, the poem of Relational Self-Portrait by Dean Rader, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, Long Division by Kiese Laymon, The End of Eve by Ariel Gore, The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright, and Aftermath by Rachel Cusk again (and again). It goes without saying I recommend every one of these. In a way, I am reading about uncertainty, but then everything is about uncertainty. Eventually I am reading new things.

But I am also still re-reading The Autobiography of Red. It’s a novel written in verse. Everything is a metaphor. It is terribly beautiful and you need to read it slowly and if you have forgotten how to read slowly, as I have, then you simply read it repeatedly. The more you read it the more you realise stories about love affairs are really stories about trials are really stories about dreams and monsters are really stories about self.

We were supposed to be bringing one another stillness, I point out. He promises me he’s very calm. Yes, I say, because you’re the eye of the fucking storm, you might be calm but no-one else around you ever is. He likes that and we both laugh. But he has a shadow self. It’s appearance is even more alarming to him than it is to me. The kindness, the openness, the intuitiveness and most of all, the fearlessness are gone.

His sense of self crumbles. He tries to argue with me about things I don’t recognise. It’s his past, not mine, and so I lack the bitterness towards it that he is seeking. I return home in a panic. Safe inside my own house I suddenly feel like I am reassembling. Enough, I decide.

Out of the gate.

And off for a walk.

On awe

Over the last couple of years when I have been single, I have thought about what I really wanted in someone for a relationship and that it was kindness and a capacity for awe, never realising how closely related these two things were…

In one part of the study, participants who spent time looking upwards at high eucalyptus trees were more likely to help a researcher who had dropped some equipment than were those who looked at a building. In another, watching clips from Planet Earth triggered more altruistic attitudes. “By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self”, researcher Paul Piff was quoted as saying, “awe may encourage people to forgo strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that awe has strange effects on us; after all, it’s a pretty strange phenomenon. The late psychologist Paul Pearsall – who did much to campaign for its recognition as an additional “official” emotion, alongside mainstream psychology’s accepted ones – noted that awe cannot be categorized as wholly negative or positive: the mixture of the two is fundamental. Relatedly, it isn’t provoked only by experiences we’d categorize as positive: glorious natural scenes prompt awe, but so can the recognition of mortality brought about by the diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease. Crucially, in the new study, pro-social attitudes were associated with awe felt in the presence of natural beauty and natural disasters. Both are vivid reminders of the smallness of the individual self.

From “Awe: the powerful emotion with strange and beautiful effects” by Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian.

your auntie & ‘nem done finished the wine & put on that Ohio Players or whatever album makes them feel blackest. they dancin’ nasty & you watching from the steps when you should be sleep. your uncle is usually a man of much shoulders & silence but tonight he is a brown slur in the light, his body liquid & drunk with good sound. you feel like you shouldn’t be looking at how shameless he moves his hips, how he holds your auntie like a cliff or something that just might save him. your mama is not your mama tonight – she is 19 again, unsure what burns in her middle. your not-mama is caught in a rapture so ungospel you wonder if this is what they mean by sin, & if it is, how, like really how, could this be the way to hell? you’ve never seen her this free, this on fire this — “BOY!” she screams at you but not so you’ll go back to bed. she calls you to her, you grab her hands, she shows you where you come from.

From “Notes For a Film on Black Joy” by Danez Smith in Gawker.

Be with an artist

and find sketches of your body parts.

bb sketch

1. This morning was perfect: the six year old crawled into my bed first thing, as he generally does for a cuddle when I’m awake but sorta meditating but sorta just thinking because I’m not good at meditation, and then he fell asleep against me.. and so this morning was even better because after I’d basked in the sweetness of him sleeping I got up and the ten year old and I had breakfast as just us, and we talked about nearly everything, in the kind of way that you can only do as two people together.

2. Cormac, the five year old making sense of his good fortune when his health-conscious mother bought him McDonald’s fries on today’s road trip – “Mum it’s ok because a) you were really, really hungry, b) there weren’t many other options, c) you didn’t want complaining kids all the way home and d) you just …couldn’t help it”. (Am not as judgey as Cormac makes me sound. I love hot chips).

3. The ten year old, Lauca, who comes from politically obsessed Labor families on both sides confessed to secretly testing herself on the voting compass. Me: really? Did you manage to understand the policy trade-offs being asked? Her: I think so. (Guilty expression). But I came out more a Greens voter. Me: We all do.

4. Cormac (age 5): When I grow up I’m going to be a parent who stays home with the baby.

Me: Really?

C: Actually no. My partner will look after the baby.

Me: What will you do?

C: Go to Bunnings and pick up some stuff.

Lauca (age 9): Have you asked your partner about that?

C: I haven’t met her yet.

L: Good luck making that relationship last.

5. Tucked Lauca, the nine year old into bed. Asked her what’s this latest book she’s been reading all night. Siblings Without Rivalry. A parenting book I bought and meant to read ages ago. “It has some good ideas but I don’t know how much you’ll find they can apply to Cormac and I”, she said.

6. Cormac lost his second tooth tonight and is insisting on cleaning it with toothpaste before putting it out for the tooth fairy. Never too late to fake cleaning your teeth regularly.

7. Me: Cormac, go and clean your teeth. Cormac: All you are about is cleaning teeth and looking pretty.

On self-interest

marquees-9

Jenny Holzer

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– Jenny Holzer

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