On genitalia

In the shower this morning I practised a talk I may or may not give next week at a story telling event.  All depends on how much courage I can muster. 

The theme is bodies, a topic dear to my heart, given I write about it and avoid it in equal measure. 

I hear the word body and my own tense relationship to my body erupts.

Like most people, I have two arms and two legs, a head, two eyes, ears and all that goes between. And by all that I don’t mean those vital organs: heart, kidneys, lungs, liver and intestines.  

I mean the unmentionable.


For me, as a woman, my vagina and breasts and all the other bits around that signify bodily desire.

Only I tend to put mine on hold. 

I’m not planning to say this in my talk.

In my talk I’ll hedge around. It’s easier to do this.

To talk about my life at boarding school when I could not stop eating and ballooned three sizes, to the point I planned to stay hidden behind my uniform like the nuns in their habits. 

When I first decided the life of a nun would be easier than that of a woman in the world.

To my mind then nuns did not eat, at least not in public, and I imagined they were even more discreet about using showers or baths. 

Their bodies were the temples of their souls, useless merchandise, like the wrapping that goes around birthday presents. 

A nun’s body shape didn’t matter, only her body needed to function sufficient for her to get up in the morning and go about her nun’s business. 

In the case of my nuns, The Faithful Companions of Jesus, their primary function, besides dedication to Christ – the women at the foot of his cross after crucifixion – was to teach.

With a few exceptions. Those who were considered ineligible for teaching and wound up in the kitchen feeding the other nuns and the boarders, me among them. 

The diet was carbohydrate heavy. Stodge in vast quantities and sugar. Hence my inability to control my size, given the urge to eat all the biscuits and fruit buns on offer. 

The bread rolls at breakfast, cast off by the local baker and offered to the kitchen nuns who sprinkled them with water and then tossed them in the oven.

The white rolls came up crisp on the outside and soft in the middle. It was like eating clouds layered with butter and honey. 

As many as we wanted. I ate two or three per breakfast and before I knew it, had stretched to accommodate all the other changes happening throughout my adolescence. 

Out of control, and in contrast to Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance. She writes about the extent to which hunger can give you a sense of mastery and control, a control I lacked in those days. 

This was fine as long as I could hide behind my school uniform. Outside school it was another matter. 

To talk about such things in public without the benefit of my notes is scary. I know enough from public speaking classes that it won’t do to rote learn. 

Better to riff off bullet points in your head and flesh things out. Know your stuff through practice. 

To practice a speech, you need a quiet place where no one can hear and you need to go through the fantasy of speaking to your audience. 

I tried recording my talk on the telephone the other day. It helped, up to a point, the telephone my audience. Recording added that element of anxiety provoking expectation. 

‘You will do this properly,’ the voice that urges me to take myself seriously and perform well says. 

Much of the time I want only to chuck it in. Not bother taking my turn on the stage. Let other women have their ten minutes to speak about their bodies. 

I have a friend who is a natural at this. She doesn’t even prepare. If she decides to get up and speak, depending on the topic and her state of mind on the day, she can get up and chat away to her audience with not a skerrick of angst. 

I could no more get up unrehearsed than fly. 

I am not so paralysed that I cannot give it a go, and I can rise to the occasion, but is the anxiety worth it? 

Have a listen. 

Ants, Asylum Seekers and Bigotry

One of the ants I thought I’d killed earlier this morning at the kitchen sink just flopped from my sleeve onto the key board.

How easy it is to squash ants to extinction without a thought, as if they and their lives don’t matter.

To me not perhaps, but to the ants, their lives or their industry matter and the perpetuation of their species.

Otherwise why do they flourish?

Which leads me to wonder, why are there people like my friend The Writer, a man who is soon to turn eighty and with his whole rich life behind him, who cannot understand there are others less fortunate, others who deserve help in this crazy world?

Why are there so many who say things like ‘go back to where you came from’?  Who feel entitled to the land on which they stand as if they’ve earned it as a right, through the good fortune of family inheritance or through hard work.

Why do they not consider there are others who might also have worked hard in their lifetimes, but who were born in places and into families where life is not quite so peaceful, where war or famine or corruption has led them to such desperate states they cannot stay and must risk their lives in boats, or planes, or on foot to seek a better life somewhere else?

Why is it hard for some people to understand that most of these others do not go willingly?

These people do not go because they simply imagine the grass is greener elsewhere.

They cannot survive where they live. They will be killed or tortured, or their families killed and tortured.

And for this reason, like some Jewish people before and during the second world war who saw the writing on the wall and had the presence of mind as well as the resources, to get the hell out of their homes, fled and went elsewhere.

Otherwise they, like many others and through no fault of their own, would have ended up in the gas chambers of Europe.

We know this. We have this history behind us.

Little more than seventy years ago and still there are those who resist what is politely called migration, the movement of people across the globe.

Governments who seek to close their borders, shut their doors, tell others more needy to go away.

Is it based on the infantile belief that there’s only enough for one, for me and mine?

Otherwise, outsiders, the ‘other’, the person over there who is knocking on my door might come in and try to rob me of all I have.

A type of paranoia that says we must keep our windows shut tight against all undesirables in order to feel safe.

But then we never feel safe because we know there are all those impoverished and desperate ‘others’ out there who clamour for asylum at our door step, desperate to be let in.

How much do those desperate people represent our own internal desperation – our fears of not having enough, of our own human frailty – that we are fearful to acknowledge?

I’m having trouble understanding the Writer’s decision, as he put it in a recent letter: to have voted at the last election ‘in the senate for the Hunters and shooters and Fishers, or whatever they call themselves, and in the House of Reps for the National Party’.  He put Labor and the Greens last and second last, he writes further, and ‘if an anti-immigration party had fielded a candidate, [he] might have put them high on [his] list.’

He tells me this, he writes, ‘not to shock or provoke’ me, but ‘to let a bit of honesty into our correspondence’, so that I no longer assume as I might have in the past that he ‘being a writer makes [him] into a certain sort of person’. 

The Writer lives in the country and maybe in the country more people feel as desperate to survive as the ants and asylum seekers, with drought and alienation from the cities.

Maybe in the country, the sense of us against them breeds a spirit of fear: close the hatches keep the enemy out.

Though the Writer has not always lived in the county.

Only in the last ten or so years. But this reminds me he spent stretches of his childhood in places like Bendigo when his father who was a gambler lost all the family’s money. They needed to do a runner several times throughout the Writer’s childhood and had to start afresh elsewhere to escape their father’s gambling debts.

What does this do to a person? Such an early life must have created an unsafe beginning and a deep fear of not having enough.

Can we see the connection here? It always amazes me that some of the folks most opposed to asylum seekers are those who came from elsewhere, too. As if their arrival here was so hard won, they’re terrified of others taking it away.

Another friend urges me to ask questions of the Writer, to better understand where he’s coming from.

Why do you think like this? I can ask. Or is it akin to asking a Trump supporter why do you support Trump?

And my thoughts about the ants at the sink and my careless disregard for them and their lives might well put me in the same category as my friend the Writer.

Even a worse category because I take the high moral ground that says he is wrong.

I try to get away from such notions.

To me it’s more about compassion. Compassion for those whose circumstances are not only bad within themselves at the hands of the leaders of their countries of origin, or at the hands of the natural world through drought and famine, often times made worse by people’s failure to nurture the land ,which happens when we have wars, and other forms of conflict.

Compassion for those who unlike the ants are sentient beings – and even the ants might be sentient – with hearts, bodies and minds like ours.

How can we not consider their plight, and do our best not to make things worse for them but try to make things better?