Avoiding the unexpected

For the first time in my life, my Bleeding Heart is thriving.

My Bleeding Heart or what others call my Chain of Hearts.

For me it bleeds, heart-shaped leaves that slip from purple-grey to green and give off a wash of sorrow made more beautiful by every tendril that falls. 

I’ve been in discussions of late with a friend who is concerned about the rise of content warnings to the point of suggesting we put such warnings on books.

This blogger urges content warnings on books because she hates to read a book and find herself suddenly assaulted by images in her imagination that she can’t remove. 

If she had known in advance that such content in the book might stir up memories of her own distress or refresh distress then she would most certainly have appreciated a warning in advance.  

To me, this is the oddest thing.

Why read if you don’t want to be moved or even unsettled?

Why read if you want every word to be as predictable as the next?

Why read if you don’t want your imagination to take you places where you have never been before or take you to places that are all too familiar, including those of distress and so-called trauma? 

The more you read into these territories the more you can get your mind around events of your own experience that once disturbed you, and maybe still do, to learn about how others have tackled them. 

At least this blogger is asking for a content warning only. She’s not suggesting we altogether ban such books from the library of human thought. 

I’d have thought the blurb, the cover and a few pages from the beginning might give you some idea of the nature of the terrain ahead. 

Not the specifics though.

That’s the magic of literature. You can’t go on a journey without going on that journey. And everyone’s perspective of that journey will be different, even as we might all be exposed to the same landmarks. 

That’s the joy of reading and most writers know that not all readers will read their work in the spirit in which they’ve written.

People will see things the writer never dreamed of. 

You can’t get to your destination without actually going through the landmarks of that journey unless you want to avoid the experience of life altogether. 

You can travel from A to B in a hermetically sealed bubble. You can fly from Australia to Los Angeles without a stopover and know almost nothing of the terrain over which your plane has carried you, but you will still have the experience of the plane journey itself. 

Unless you anaesthetize yourself.

Your time within the airport your time landing and those fourteen hours or so where you entered what I always think of as a travel bubble where time takes on a new dimension and you try to pass it by sleep or reading or watching movies and the occasional usually awful airplane food. 

Perish the thought the unexpected happens. That the plane encounters difficulties. No one wants this and this is the extreme of trauma to be mid-flight in turbulence that causes the air in the plane to drop so that airbags become necessary. 

Still, this happens rarely. 

Air travel is an actual experience, a reality and by-product of the amazing thing called human flight. 

Reading a book is a virtual experience. We might find ourselves plummeting to the earth in our story airplane, feel all the anxiety and horror of the descent, our imaginations filled with the angst of our fears of dying but we will not die. 

Note I’m using a safe metaphor here. Flight as opposed to the horrors of being on the receiving end of gross cruelty or sexual abuse.

Yesterday, I listened to a Ted talk by Keely Herron who spoke of her distress over what she calls the cult of happiness. The pressure always to exude happiness in public and to hide our ‘unacceptable’ trauma from others. 

In contrast to ‘acceptable trauma’.

She uses the example of a young man, Danny, who did not learn to swim until he was thirty because he had been bullied as a child.

Everyone applauded Danny’s story. They admired his tenacity. He learned to swim after all that distress. At least one person even found his story inspiring. This trauma of being bullied at school is ‘acceptable’.

But other stories such as this women’s father who killed himself, or her first experience as a five-year-old of sexual abuse and her later experience of being raped. These rate as unacceptable trauma. You keep them to yourself. 

Sexual abuse of all forms, especially incest, go into this category, along with suicide and mental illness.

These then are the cornerstones of unacceptable trauma. 

The stories we might tell, about which our blogger wants a pre-warning:

This content will distress you. This content will unsettle you, and for those out there who do not want to be unsettled by life, by what you read, do not go there.

Stay in the safe bubble of Facebook land or elsewhere where images are sanitised, even as the news every day overwhelms us to the point of horror to which we have become inured.

It’s a crazy world that on the one hand advocates content warnings on literature and at the same time allows the governments that currently lead us to thrive. 

I watch my Bleeding Heart grow and admire its beauty. There is beauty in pain, sorrow and suffering if only we can see it.

Not for its own sake, but for the fact we can’t avoid such feelings and also in the sense that to feel is to be human, and helpful. 

Our feelings help us to understand ourselves and our world. They help us to connect with others and guide our decisions.

Let’s not wrap our feelings, even the uncomfortable ones, up in avoidance and denial.

Dirt

Knees up on the couch, I traced a line with my finger along the length of my thigh. One of those summer days during the 1960s before we knew about climate change but still so hot as to leave me breathless and reluctant to do anything other than curl up on the couch with one of my father’s Time Magazines. 

At first, I thought I’d contracted some rare disease that gave off a rash of unspeakable black, but I scratched at it and watched it peel off under my fingernails with an already thin line of black where the nail joined the skin. 

No doubt about it, this was dirt.

One of those moments in my life when I knew things had to change. When I knew I must now listen to my older sister’s warnings about my body.

How it was changing. Even I could see that. How I now needed to spread deodorant under my armpits every morning before putting on my school dress, otherwise, my school dress and I along with it would smell like my brothers on a hot day. 

BO. My sister pronounced the letters with disdain. Till then a bath or shower once a week had been enough. Until the hair washing on a Saturday night could leave my hair looking clean enough all week long, especially once I tied it behind in a ponytail. But now this onset from within had begun to attack my hair as well. 

On Sundays after Mass, my sister took her hair out of its elastic band and brushed through repeatedly. She dragged the brush through from the roots to the tips. This way, she told me she was pushing the oil to her hair’s dry extremities and if she did this long enough, she could reinvigorate her hair by coating every strand with her own rich oils. Sometimes she used an egg and freed the yolk which she smeared all over her head. The egg nourished her hair, she told me, but she needed to leave it in for at least ten minutes.  Then she washed it away, oil and egg yolk. Oily hair might have been healthy, but it was ugly, she told me. Hideous, a sign of neglect.

I feared she was aiming her disdain at me. And the way in which my hair had taken on the oily look of neglect.

It was not an easy transition into this shift from hating the effort required to relishing the joy of standing under the hot stream of water and soaking up the perfume of Lux soap or Johnston’s baby powder, the smell of shampoo on a wet head, the feel of clean.

As with so many things, I soon became obsessive about the cleanliness of my body. And showers took longer and longer, as long as my father was not at home to interrupt them. 

Showers and the need to scrape underneath my fingernails to ensure there was not a speck of grime visible.

And deodorant, the most floral imaginable to give the illusion of a Myer make up counter where the perfumes hit you even before you saw the women with flame red lips and eyes covered in darkness in whatever shade was then fashionable.

In the sixties going into the seventies, we experimented with blues and turquoise, purples and pinks. The bluer the better, but I did not start on the eye colour until I left home for fear of my father’s mockery. 

From the vantage point of today, I wonder about the hours lost trying to wrangle my body into this pristine state of cleanliness and almost virginal sanctity. As if I did not want a sniff of my womanhood to be visible. 

I went once to the toilet soon after my mother and the smell of her body, to my adolescent self was revolting, heavy with something intangible. Of sex or vaginal secretions. The smells appalled me, even as I could not name them. 

My mother’s body which I once loved with an infant’s passion became this scary receptacle of the unspeakable.

I began to avoid her and kept well away from the hands she once used on my ponytail as we watched television together. Or she came up behind me while I was sitting in the kitchen over my homework.

My mother’s fingers already showing signs of the arthritis that dogged her in later life took hold of the length of my plait or ponytail and she threaded it through her fingers, wound it round and round her hand, then let it fall. Sometimes she stepped back to see the effect of her caresses. And then she started over again. 

Her affection, which I might once have craved became torture in my adolescence when we walked side by side along Centre Dandenong Road on our way to church on Sundays and the others strode on ahead. I hung back with my mother but hated the way she took up my hand as though I was a child much younger than my fourteen years might suggest or as if I was her adult partner. 

I thought of the men on the building sites. Men who wolf-whistled at me when I was alone or with my older sister, and to my mind approved of my then developing body. They would not do so when my mother held my hand. 

So, I learned to avoid my mother, in the same way, I avoided my father. Not out of fear but out of resistance against childhood and babyhood, when I wanted only to grow up and away.

Away from the smell of my mother and of her house, of her many babies, and of her European tendency to bath only once a week, like ripening fruit, even as she tapped 4711 eau de cologne on her wrists and behind her ears before Mass every Sunday and smeared a line of red across her lips. Even as she tried to meet the cleanliness standards I and my other siblings introduced. She who once spat saliva onto her handkerchief and rubbed away at the remnants of jam still visible on my child chin; who once noticed these small insults of dirt on my face, lost touch with her own messiness under the veneer of respectability that came with lipstick and eau de cologne.

Until after my father died and she re-married a man for whom she adopted a more Australian style of cleanliness and began to shower daily until she was too old to do it herself. Which brings me full circle to where I began.

Under the shower this morning determined to wash my hair, a task I have taken to hating again for its time absorbing potential and for the never endingness of its demand.

I will not revert to childhood avoidance. I will stay as clean as I can while allowing myself the indulgent thought: apart from the pleasure of standing under the warm rush of water.

Apart from the comfort of soap against my skin, the business of shedding clothes, of stepping underwater, the assault of having to dry a once warmed body against the shock of cold once outside the shower and the trouble with towelling yourself dry, making sure I get between every toe to avoid tinea.

These tasks are almost as bad as the tasks of washing dishes after a meal or wiping benches. I do not derive pleasure from the task itself. Maybe it’s like writing, the best of it occurs once it’s done. 

I will keep at it.