Flowers, nuns and psychoanalysis

Over the last several weeks my husband has come home every weekend with several bunches of daffodils and early cheer.

‘Because they’re cheap,’ he says. ‘$10.00 a bunch.’ 

I’d prefer he didn’t buy them. That, too, I don’t say.

Waste of money, I think, but don’t say.

It falls to me to put them in vases, although the other day he asked our daughter first.

I got to them before she had the chance. 

No point in leaving flowers with naked cut stems lie around on top of the table clothed in a sheet of brown paper and ready to wilt. 

 I put them in a large vase on the kitchen table and when my daughter saw them she asked if I’d simply put this week’s fresh bunch in with last week’s dead ones. 

‘No,’ I said, ‘Did you really think I’d do that?’ knowing full well that I had toyed with saving as many of last weeks stems still presentable and adding in the new ones.

As I pulled out daffodil after daffodil I noticed that each yolk yellow trumpet still stood tall and seemingly fresh, while the pale yellow frilly skirt around it had started to grow brown and wilt. 

In the end I tossed the lot onto the garden for mulch. 

There you have it: the old and the new. 

‘They look like they’ve just been tossed into the vase,’ my daughter said and leaned over to rearrange them. 

‘Fine by me,’ I said, and she laughed.

‘I thought you enjoyed this type of thing.’

I do not. It rates to me like housework: something we have to do and regularly. The end result is satisfying but in no time at all the place is messy again.

No, I do not enjoy arranging flowers.

I enjoy that first moment of beauty, especially if, like freesias and most of the flowers in early spring, they give off a perfume that infuses the room.

But thereafter I find it almost intolerable how fast they die. 

In days, they’re past their prime. 

In days, they begin to wilt. 

In days, the water goes murky and needs replenishing or topping up and in days, I begin to wonder how long I can leave those flowers on display without its being obvious they need to go.

Years ago, I admired my analyst, Mrs Milanova, for her doggedness in providing her consulting room every week with a fresh bunch of flowers, most likely from a florist.

Some of them, like the gerberas she was keen on and the tall stemmed tulips, came with their stalks propped up by a twisted coil or some type of wire or green covered cable to disguise its presence.

This artificial propping up annoyed me, though I never told her as much. 

It still annoys me.

I can understand its usefulness: tall stemmed whatevers are going to topple faster than those with short stems or lots of branches covered in leaves. Unless they get help.

To me, flowers represent life gone too soon.

I prefer something with a longer shelf life than cut flowers. I prefer something that’s less likely to remind me of the transience of life. 

Flowers also remind me of churches and the chapel at my school where my favourite nun, Sister Dominic, had the task of replacing them regularly.

She also had the task of going to the florist to buy them. More often than not the florist gave them over to the nuns free.  

What was that like? To receive things for nothing simply because you wore a habit. 

In any case, because I was in love with this nun when I travelled through my teens at boarding school and away from the world, my passion for her intensified and I did anything I could to be near to her, including helping her in the sacristy. 

She tolerated me there and gave me the job of smearing Brasso over each of the vases the nuns used to hold their flowers. Letting the liquid Brasso dry and go white, then scrubbing it off with a soft cloth until the vase shone like gold. 

I preferred this task with its strong chemical smell to the task of arranging flowers. Not that I ever did this.

I sensed Sister Dominic disliked this task too. Not that she said as much. 

Nuns did as they were told. They went where they were told. They took on whatever was asked of them by their Reverend Mother because this was part of their vow of poverty, chastity and obedience. 

Although I spent my last several years at school contemplating the life of a nun and imaging that the only way I could be close to my favourite nun was to join her, the idea of such silent obedience appalled me, just as it did twenty years later when I entered the analytic training. 

Then, too, I figured one way of being able to stay close to my analyst, my beloved Mrs Milanova, was to become one, too. 

It was easy enough to abandon the idea of becoming a nun once I went out into the world and looked around me at all the things I would miss out on, including the company and certain pleasures of men, but to leave the analytic calling proved much harder. 

Like a flower cut down in its prime ditched from the vase, faded and ready to turn into mulch. 

When they’re so much happier left in the ground.

A tide of children and of mess

It’s hard not to be repulsed when the puppy eats poo, as though something disgusting is happening and I’m powerless to stop it.

When I first saw it happening, I googled –  as you do –  and Mr Google says ‘Don’t worry. It’s normal.’ 

If it persists it could be a sign of not enough nourishment in your puppy’s diet, or a bad habit the puppy develops because you were too strict in stopping said puppy from eating poo in the first place.

It becomes a way for the puppy of getting attention. 

Best therefore to make sure there’s no poo around to act as a temptation.

All of this sits alongside my dis-ease given today we have some people visiting to sign their wills, which my lawyer husband prepared, and I will need to be present as an impartial witness. 

I’m happy to be here. Happy to engage but not in this house, this messy house in which we have lived for the past forty years, this cluttered house whose skirting boards were never finished, with paint chipped at the back door and cracks in the ceilings.

This house which we have stopped maintaining as rigorously as we might ever since we completed a second renovation twenty-five years ago. 

A beautiful house but a tired one. And it shows. A house with wrinkles like an elderly person.

The people coming to have their wills signed live in Vogue living comfort and order and it troubles me that they might judge us as slobs.

It’s not as bad as the house where I lived as a child. Here the dishes are not piled high on the sink. The floors are vacuumed. But the stuff on almost every surface gives it a cluttered feel. 

Years ago, I worked with a woman who worried about hoarding. She’s dead now and I wonder whether her fears of hoarding have made any difference to her in the long run. They did not keep her alive.

I try to think this way about my anxiety over what I imagine to be these judgmental visitors.

I like to welcome people into my house free of the fear that they will find me lacking for something as trivial as a messy house. I prefer people to judge me for my mind.

But my mind is well hidden behind my eyes and face. So, they can’t see it. They can only get hints of what’s in there. Whereas my messy house is obvious. So many things out of place. So many things not put away. 

Speaking of mess, my mother kept a slab of Nulax on top of the fridge in our kitchen which she took out of its orange and brown box daily and broke off a piece. She chewed it for her bowels.

Sluggish bowels she told me, and all I could think of was the word sluggish, like slugs, black and slimy and somehow repulsive to think of down there in her bowels. 

I tried the Nulax once. Revolting stuff, dense dried fruit jam packed with fig and seeds from some non identifiable fruit that stuck in the holes in my teeth. 

Then there’s the absence of emotional mess.

I have a good friend. I shall call her Mary. A good name for a woman with a heart of gold. A woman whom everyone loves. And the fact that everyone loves her – including me – makes me want to hate her. Makes me want to take her place in the beloved states. 

How does she do it? Make it so that people love her and admire her and trust her and offer her their loyalty and trust.

Why do I distrust such goodness? I recognize it as authentic and yet…

Whenever I hear stories about the importance of love and the need to put aside our grievances, to let them slide away, not harbor any resentment or hatred, a part of me rails against the order.

For one thing it seems boring. A life without any acrimony seems saccharin sweet, fake. I enjoy a burst of hatred sometimes, a sense of anger and outrage and feeling of being wounded and nursing my grievance like a comfortable old doll.

I want to hold onto it for a while.

My friend Mary works hard not to hold such grievances. She reckons they foster splitting. She reckons we need to recognize the good in others and not see them simply as the enemy.

She’s right of course. 

I think of a talk I once heard in which the academic talked about the poet John Keats and his ideas on ‘negative capability’. How much Keates despised the absolutist certainties of a certain bigot named Dodds.

Keats wrote letters about this man whom he despised for his certainty and yet in despising him Keats became almost as certain as the man whose certainties Keats despised. 

Such is the paradox of having ideas and inflicting them on others. We get stuck in the same mode. We put these people we hate into some separate category and become hateful ourselves.

How would it be if we were Dalai-like and filled with nothing but love.

Boring, I say. 

Besides, I suspect it’s impossible to be so without any unkindness towards another that you can only see good in everyone.

My mother tried this. It never worked. She hated one of my aunts, one who had married one of her several brothers. My mother could never admit as much. Instead she pointed out my aunt’s flaws behind a wall of concern for her brother that his wife could be so irreligious as to no longer attend Mass on Sundays. 

This aunt had suffered during the war in Indonesia. She had seen her brother shot dead by Japanese soldiers hence her foibles could be forgiven. And my mother tried to give an impression of tolerance. 

I sensed the dislike was mutual. My aunt disproved of my mother in equal measure. For different reasons.

My mother had so many children but was useless at keeping them clean and well fed. My aunt was a nurse. She knew about order. Whereas my mother read books to escape the mess. She found order in the written word and ignored the mess of her kitchen, dishes piled on the sink. Washing squashed down flat in a basket in the corner waiting to be folded. My older sister’s job.

Maybe my mother and I have more in common than I’d like to admit.

We lived in squalor as children and I blamed my mother.

And then years later when we were grown up and had left home, my mother remarried. After my father’s death and she moved into her new husband’s home not far from where we lived on Warringal Road in Cheltenham. My mother kept this new house clean and tidy. 

I could not understand it. How did he do it? And why?

Why didn’t she stretch her lazy habits into her sixties and seventies? 

Only lately it occurs to me, anyone with nine children is going to have a messy house, unless they run it like a military operation, like Captain Van Trapp in The Sound of Music.

No, my mother was doing her best against a tide of children and mess.

Maybe I can likewise forgive myself my clutter.

I too do not live alone, and I will not dedicate my entire life to the stuff of picking up after others, including the puppy. Though once a week I find myself in the back yard collecting her poo.