January 2011 archive

What gives you the right?

The telephone rang and interrupted my first fitful efforts at sleeping.
‘You fucking bitch,’ he said. ‘You fucking bitch.’ His voice trailed off. Time slowed down. Is this a dream, I wondered? Is this a phone call in my sleep? In a minute I’ll wake up.
‘Everyone knows what you’ve been up to. Everyone knows but me. I’m the last to know.’
I found my voice, but the words were croaky.
‘What are you talking about?’ I knew what he was talking about but I wanted to deny it even as I knew it was true. I wanted to think it did not matter. I wanted him to think it did not matter that I had betrayed him.

I had slept with someone else. Slept with, such a euphemism. Had sex with, fucked, shagged, you name it in biblical terms. That I had gone off with another man while he was away for weeks on end.

Somehow he expected me to sit at home, the good and loving girlfriend, the good and loving partner, always faithful, irrespective of how he behaved.
‘I’m coming over now,’ he said. ‘I’ve got your stuff. You can have it back. I never want to see you again.’

The dial tone buzzed in my ear. I kept the phone close. I could not believe he had rung off. Soon he would be here. I dragged on my dressing gown. Good, I thought. He’ll be here soon. I’ll settle him down. I’ll soothe him. A few gentle words.

I heard his car pull up in the carport below. I looked through the blinds. He opened the car door and flung the books and clothes that I had left behind at his house as a mark of our relationship.

When we had separated three months earlier, we agreed on an amicable split. We agreed to go our separate ways, that we would each be free now to explore new relationships.

I pulled up the blinds and swung open the window. ‘Come up,’ I said. ‘Don’t just throw stuff. Come up and talk.’ He continued to throw more books, my old grey cardigan, my CD case, my sunglasses onto the pile. I kept my voice low. I did not want to wake the neighbours.

‘Please talk,’ I said again to the silent man whose arm moved up and down like a piston as he threw the last of my shoes onto the pile. He slammed his car door shut. He had not cut the engine. He reversed without looking up to see me.

That was how we left it. The end of the scene. The death of a relationship. Silence is the best revenge.

I have no trouble with the word ‘hate’ these days. It rolls off my tongue easily. I can tell someone that I hate someone else; even that I hate them as long as I also feel a fondness, a love for the one to whom I might direct the word hate, otherwise I can only talk about such hateful feelings behind someone’s back.

I can try to qualify my comments, when I am angry with my husband for instance, to say to him, I really hate it when you do that, not, I hate you when you do that, but the truth is, in that moment, I hate him.

I know well enough that it is a sign of confidence in her mother’s love when a child is able to say to her mother directly, ‘I hate you’. To know that her mother will tolerate such an expression and not retaliate or go under into shock and horror, or be destroyed by it because this mother recognises that her child says these words out of hurt or disappointment in the mother whom the child also loves.

It is not unusual to hear such utterances from three and four year olds, but as we get older it seems we learn to modify such outbursts. We learn, if we have gone to the right behavioural schools, to criticise the behaviour, not the person.

‘It’s not ‘you’ I hate, it’s what you do…when you get drunk, when you refuse to tidy your room, when you don’t pull your weight, when you carry on like that, when you’re slack, when you give up on yourself, when you stop caring about others, about me.’ It’s okay to hate these things, these behaviours, but to hate the person who does these things becomes a no-no.

It is important to distinguish the person from the behaviour and yet, the satisfaction that comes from really being able to say to someone or of someone, ‘I hate you’ knows no bounds. It gives great satisfaction, and yet almost immediately there is a wish to qualify it. I hate you when…

We throw around the word ‘love’ with such ease, but the word ‘hate’ we are wary of, for good reasons – all those wars, all that bloodshed.

Hatred is not something to spread, but it can be spread in subtle and secret ways and often even by people who purport to love and to care.

When I was at the Writer’s House, Peter Bishop urged me to write into my rage. Write into your rage he said, vomit onto the page.

Peter Bishop also says to write out of ‘doubts and loves’. Where do we put the hate? I wondered. Is not hate on a continuum with the love? The ones we love are the ones we hate, beginning with our parents.

When I first read William Gaddis’s words quote in the Sunday Age in an article by Don Watson I knew that these words were important for me.
‘The best writing worth reading comes like suicide from outrage or revenge.’

It is not the first time I have been in a creative hole as deep as this. It is not the first time that I have sat alone at my writing desk wishing for something to come to me, some thread, some thought, some feeling or image that I might follow, but it is no less painful. I ache all over with the refusal. My mind will not give it up. My mind will not let the words flow, will not let me arrive at some point where I can think, ah ha I have it. I know now what I am writing about. I know now what this book is about. I can proceed. I start again and again, so many false starts so many attempts to move beyond this desperate feeling of not knowing what I am doing.

And the audience whom I tried to send away only five minutes ago is back again, my parents and siblings in the front row alongside my conscience. They say to me again, in a chorus, what are you on about? We don’t want to know this. Tell us a story instead and make it good. Make it interesting.

But if I start to tell a story, I fear I will be in trouble with someone. That someone will tap me on the shoulder and say ‘What gives you the right?’

A psychological sandwich

I am my mother’s daughter. When I was in my early twenties, when I first began to develop a will of my own, when I first discovered the thrill of rebellion and quietly thumbed my nose at my mother’s religiosity and what I then saw as her prudery, and began to favour the company of men – what I have called my ‘promiscuous’ years – my mother took to writing me letters.

My mother writes letters still even though we live less than twenty kilometers apart. She writes to all her children as a means of stating her case.

My mother’s letters to me are ‘psychological sandwiches’. They begin with protests of her love for me. The middle carries the sting. What do you think you are doing? Who do you think you are? Behaving so loosely with men. Where are your morals?

Then she might end the letter with a short vignette: her memory of me as a little girl in a yellow jumper and tartan skirt, after she had come home from hospital with my new baby sister, when I was less than two years old and had been left in the care of my godparents, the Kaandorps, for over a week.

In her letter my mother remembers me then as the little girl who threw herself into her mother’s arms and wept for the sheer joy of being together again. If only, my mother writes, if only she could give to me now the things I needed then. It is as if she wishes that I had never grown up, that I had never entered into the world of adulthood, of conflict and of challenge. If only I had stayed little, then our bond might be secure.

I have been reading Nancy Miller’s Bequest and Betrayal:memoirs of a parent’s death, a book about adult children who write about their parents after death. Are these memoirs eulogies, songs of praise for parents now gone, or are they betrayals of parental secrets?

I suspect I could not write about my father as I do now were he not dead. Now he is dead, I am safe.

Will the way I write about my mother change after her death? My mother in my mind has undergone so many metamorphoses, from the woman I adored as a small child to the woman I became scornful of, though not in adolescence, even in adolescence I felt protective of her and needy, to the frail old woman she has finally become, of whom I feel protective in a different way. It took a long time before I dared to feel critical of my mother in any way.

It was later in my life, in my twenties and thirties when I had embarked on my analysis, only then did my image of my mother start to crack. Only then did I come to feel critical of her, for her religious intolerance, her manipulative tendencies, and her tendency to pretend that all is well when it is not.

I have my mother’s name, all three names, Elisabeth Margaretha Maria. It is a Dutch tradition to name the second daughter after the mother, and the first daughter after the mother’s mother, a tradition that again alerts us to the significance of mothers in a woman’s life.

I did not name my first daughter after my mother or any of my daughters directly after me, but my husband insisted and I agreed to the idea that they should all have my name as a second name. Equality you might say. Their first names however belong entirely to them.

Even now I can imagine my daughters writing in the future about what it means to them to each share their mother’s name between their first and last names.

In my family of origin, we each bear the name Maria, another tradition, religious this time, a means of asking the Blessed Virgin Mary to look over us all. All except the oldest, who again according to Dutch tradition was given his father’s name in its entirety.

When we were little we laughed at the fact that even the boys carried the name Maria in their collection of personal names, Simon Peter Maria, Franciscus Wiro Maria, Michael George Maria and Gregory Paul Maria. Such odd names they seemed to us growing up in Australia in the fifties and sixties when most people’s names were Celtic and Anglo Saxon with the odd immigrant name from the Mediterranean or Europe thrown in for good measure.

Names matter, they are identifying features, they become part of our sense of ourselves and of our identity.

In the days when I fancied I might write a book in which I had hoped each of my siblings might contribute a chapter, I also imagined a paragraph on each of us, suggesting parallels between our first given name and the way in which our name reflects our personalities.

As usual I am running off into too many ideas, too many ideas to follow. One leads into the other and the track becomes unwieldy. It is difficult to back track to where we have come from. Sorry.

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