A desk, a mess and a controversial cartoon

The mess on my desk is pushing in on me to the point I only have a small space from which to use my keypad and mouse.

It happens like this. I start with a tidy desk, plenty of space to right and left, a collection of biros and pens in pots, staplers to the side, paper clips in a little container, tissues handy, hand cleaner and mints all ready to go. 

Then I begin on a project and as I work away, I open books and papers and print out fresh sheets with new ideas that begin to pile around me. I write post it notes to remind me of where I’m at.

I write notes to remind me that today on top of my writing project I need to contact so and so or go to the supermarket for more dog food or speak to the electricity company or follow up with a friend. 

I list these jobs on scraps of paper and cross them off as I go, as the stack of papers and bric a brac of freshly opened bills piles up. There’s something about this mess I find comforting. Something in the fact that one day soon, I will decide enough is enough and I will begin to clear away the stuff I have dragged out from bookshelves and filing cabinets and I will put things back into some type of order, enough to allow me to begin the cycle all over again. 

For now, I will leave this mess even as the cords from my phone charger are flipping over the mouse pad on my desk and interfering with the smooth process of my typing. Even as I find myself pushing back the papers and books and bits and pieces to make room for my cup of tea and my typing fingers. 

Soon, I say soon, I will sort you. For now, my day is mapped out, a weekend day, a holiday day, a day when I get jobs completed. A trip to visit my daughter who has just started on the biggest journey of her life with a new baby son, only twenty days old now. What a time she has had in bringing him into the world and what a time she is having adjusting to her new life, the mother of a son who cluster feeds on demand and was initially very sleepy, to the point they needed to wake him for feeds. 

Now he is beginning to wake up and fresh challenges arise every day. I try to travel alongside her, to give support during what I also remember as one of the hardest times of my life, the mother of a newborn. The other hard time was teaching my children to learn to drive where life and death seemed too close for comfort. 

All this puts me in mind of Michael Leunig’s recent cartoon, one that set the local Melbourne world into a frenzy. 

How could he? The cartoon shows a mother walking along and pushing a pram, her eyes glued to her iPhone. The voice bubble comes from a tiny baby, a Leunig baby swaddled and lying on the footpath. The narrator voice-over observes how much this baby wishes his mother would love him as much as she loves her iPhone. 

We are left with the message the mother is so preoccupied with her phone she has not even noticed her baby fall out of its pram. Exaggerated, no doubt. And Leunig himself has written a letter of protest at how cruel people can be in response to his attempts to alert people to the dangers of ‘iPhone addiction’ as he calls it. 

Leunig is older than me and comes from a generation who struggle to come to grips with the way technology can dominate our lives. 

I don’t have as much trouble as Leunig.

I have a friend who tells me she has a photo of herself on a bed with her baby born in 1975. In the photo the baby is playing with a rattle and facing outwards from her mother, while the mother, my friend, is facing in the opposite direction and reading a book. 

Not an iphone, a book.

There is the fantasy that mothers must engage in eye contact with their babies almost all of the time. 

As if they do, as if they ever did.

Before my first baby was born, my husband offered to buy me a television so that when I fed at night, I could have the company of the TV screen. I had no idea what it might be like to feed a baby at night then. 

What I remember most clearly, at least at night: I had no desire to watch television while feeding my baby. I wanted only to sleep, and I fed each baby with eyes closed, seated in a low-lying bean bag on the floor so as not to fall asleep fully. Not with eyes fixed on the baby. And in the day, I looked at my babies as I fed and or held them but not every minute of every hold. 

I think there is an anxiety that derives from our infantile fear of not being loved enough that we can project onto mothers of other babies that bears little relation to the actual experience of that mother and baby. 

Leunig might have meant well but he’s tapped into a process that troubles people deeply.

In doing so, he has fed into the notion that babies need their mother’s in impossible ways, requiring constant vigilance and anything short of this means mothers are bad or certain to traumatise their desperate babies for the rest of their lives. 

Is this ever so? Or is it part of a patriarchal push to keep mothers chained to their role as mothers and not allowing the freedom they need to follow their own intuition about what their babies need? 

My day shall progress beyond this daughter to another who has just moved to a new house and would love some help settling in. And then another daughter needs help collecting a rabbit hutch which she plans to give to a needy family and so it goes. All of us helping one another in imperfect ways. 

Life, like my mess desk and endless efforts at getting order against the tide of ever-present jobs and tasks at hand.  All of it imperfect. 

You’re mad

The other day at the traffic lights I noticed a small boy with his mother and sister. On one side of the boy’s straight brown hair there was a white patch about the size of a matchbox.

It set me thinking, imagining all manner of things. 

Does the child suffer because of this one small anomaly on their person? 

Do people stare beyond the face when they talk to them and find their eyes wandering to the white patch? 

Those closest might be used to it but others new to them might wonder. 

Do they ask questions or ignore the thing that jumps out at them? Out of politeness.

 It’s not a major disability just a curiosity, which reminds me of an acquaintance who has only one arm. 

Years ago, when we were in a therapeutic group together, I took the courage to ask the story of his arm and he was kind enough to oblige. 

In a therapy group you’re allowed to ask personal questions in fact they’re encouraged. 

He told the story of a car accident wherein he was the driver and his fiancé was killed. 

How did he live through it to become the man he is today, then and now? 

How does any one of us deal with our difficulties, especially the obvious ones, the ones that everyone can see. 

Sometimes they’re not difficulties as such, like the colour of our skin or the intonation of our voices that suggest we come from some place other than where we are and others can see us as strangers or foreigners, or, as a friend reminded me lately, the way people referred to migrants in the fifties and sixties as ‘New Australians’. 

Good grief, ‘New Australians’, as though they are a rare but similar breed whose primary characteristic is their newness.

This morning, I’m off for a visit to the GP and she will check my blood pressure as she typically does and already I can feel it rising at the thought. That she will discover my high blood pressure that dogs me in my imagination. 

Long ago, I decided my heart will get me in the end. His heart got my father. Her heart got my mother. 

Both died from complications of their hearts. I take this metaphorically as well. 

I saw a heart specialist a few years back after I broke my wrist, because unlike my blood pressure my heart rate is low, elite athlete low, and I am not an elite athlete by any stretch.

After much argy bargy and concern, the specialist decided it’s an anomaly and my life can go on, as it has. 

I dislike the way the medical establishment appear to have the power to decide the fate of your body on the basis of this one word ‘diagnosis’. 

Once diagnosed it’s as if your story is now written sure and square and everything else about you matters not. Only your diagnosis.

Such classifications can become self-fulfilling. Especially the psychiatric ones.

You have bipolar or obsessive compulsive disorder and immediately the person you’re with assumed has all manner of things about you. Not the way people might think when they see the boy with the white swatch of hair on his head, or even some of the assumptions people make based on colour of skin or accent, a much more encompassing summary, like you’re mad. 

When I go to the doctor – my GP is a terrific doctor – I will tell her ahead of time that my blood pressure will be high. And she will nod wisely.

She knows me and the ways in which my body leaps ahead to urge her to make a diagnosis of hypertension, but so far she has not once mentioned the word, though she likes me to take Coversyl to help my heart at its job.

Most people over sixty she tells me are on Coversyl or its equivalent. To help your heart as it ages and gets more tired, to do its job.

She couches these things well, she has convinced me. 

My mother even into her late seventies took little or no medication and for her it was a matter of pride. As if it marked her as a special person, one who needed no medication because no one had diagnosed her as suffering any ailment.

Perhaps it was this attitude from my mother that inculcated in me these strange fantasies I have about my body, the way I feel guilty when I’m  ill, or when my blood pressure rises, as though I have done something wrong.

As though to have a body that lets you down is a crime.

This is crazy thinking I know and well worth diagnosing though I haven’t tried as yet and self-diagnosis is to be avoided.

You are the last person who can label your condition accurately. 

No, you need someone else to do this for you. Someone more expert than you in the wiles and ways of your waywardness. Or do you?

To consider yourself mad is to be sane. Most mad folk don’t recognise themselves as such or at least this is my theory at the moment. 

My theory as I clank away at this computer trying to stave off anxiety about my visit to the GP.

A regular visit for a prescription that I wish she’d give me without the need for a visit but I decided to go when one of my daughters who is soon to give birth to her first child asked all of those close to her, those who will come into contact with the baby during its first few weeks on earth, to have a whooping cough vaccine, if we are not already protected against the disease. 

I hop to it. 

When my sister was born, the one who is 21 months younger than me, I had whooping cough. My mother was panic stricken I’d pass it onto my baby sister. She took us to a doctor who gave the baby an injection, or so my mother recalled.

I have a subliminal memory of this time. My mother sent me to stay with a Dutch family, the Kaandorps and the story goes Mrs Kaandorp left me in a cot all day for the ten or so days my mother was away. 

It might have scarred me for life. The sense of not being able to breathe. The harsh guttural coughing that caused me to panic when my own babies were little, fearful they might choke on food scraps. 

The anxiety that is still in my bones. 

The body remembers.

Even writing this here I sense my heart rate rising.

Weird that. Apparently you can’t feel high blood pressure, it just is. But you can feel anxiety like a rising tide of tension in every vein and a stomach that drops down low as if it’s contracting and your heart races and pulsates and tries to get outside of you to reach a place of calm even as it’s accelerating like someone has put their foot down hard on the accelerator and you cannot stop them.

All you want is to put the brake on and enjoy stillness.

And if all that little boy with the white patch on his head has to worry about is the two-toned colour of his hair then his life will be a breeze. 

But lives are not like that. Not for any of us.

All of us will suffer and in the end we will die. The greatest indignity of all and yet also in a strange way a triumph because to die is also to have lived, at least for those of us who have lived long enough to have a story to tell. 


After my visit to the doctor, I’m relieved to report, despite my fears, it’s normal.

My heart is still chugging along.