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. 

Enjoy every puddle

A fly flew into my tea this morning and drowned. I fished it out fast and toyed with the idea of starting again, a fresh cup of tea, but then thought the better of it.

A few germs can’t harm me.

Still I flinched at the sight of this tiny black fly, wings stuck to its body, encased there in its funeral shroud of tea. 

In the garden outside, the October roses have gone brown after a full day of rain yesterday and although everything looks washed clean, the garden has the same sad look of that fly, drowned. 

Years ago, after a ferocious drought I promised I’d never begrudge rainfall again. For every puddle I saw thereafter I’d rejoice, and I try to hold firm to this resolution. 

On Monday night I’m going to be part of the audience at the next Q&A session at the ABC studios is Southbank. A bunch of illustrious and brave women will discuss family abuse, among other things. 

Someone gave my daughter tickets and at first I baulked at the thought of another night out but now I’m excited to take part. 

When I was a child I did not think that my father’s violence towards my mother and the rest of us anything out of the ordinary, at least not in our household. I did not give it a label, other than knowing that my father was volatile and prone to fits of rage at the slightest insult especially when he drank. 

I knew too that this was not a thing to be discussed outside our family home. 

At roll call in school when Mother Mary John asked us to give certain family details at the beginning of each year, she asked the names of our fathers and also their occupation. My father was an accountant. I said it with pride. I thrilled at the way he carried behind his long name, Jan Christiaan Schooneveldt, the letters of his qualifications, DipAccCA, or some such thing. I did not think about his other characteristics. Not then in class when I craved respectability.

I longed for the day when I too might attach acronyms to my name, letters from the alphabet placed together in such a way as to suggest achievement.

I find it hard to do so these days. There’s something almost boastful about putting the PhD behind my name and I can’t understand why other than I grew up in a world where we women were taught to be demure and never boastful.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s boasting, big noting yourself, calling attention to your achievements, and yet there are times when I long to tell the world, especially when it comes to my writing, ‘Here, look what I’ve done’. 

I have noticed too that the men around me never seem to have this struggle, this diminishment of pride in their achievements, even the shy ones. 

I enjoy a long correspondence with the writer Gerald Murnane and his last letter to me was one long boast about how pleased he was to have reached eighty and finally to have the recognition he has always believed he deserved. 

Oh, to be so confident. 

I prefer humility in my writers, those who can talk about their writing with pleasure and pride but have no need to rate themselves as anything but writers who have a story to tell. 

When I was a child Mother Mary John made it clear that the worst any of us could be was a notice box. Those children who sought attention from the teacher all the time. 

The boys were the biggest culprits. And mother Mary John punished them by making each stand in an empty rubbish bin on the school veranda for several hours. 

To add to the insult, she tied ribbons in their hair.

No greater insult to a small boy than to tell him he was behaving like a girl and could therefore be seen as a girl. 

I had trouble understanding the logic of this. If the boy was being punished for making a notice box of himself by fidgeting at his desk or flicking paper at his neighbour, how then did that make him like a girl when you considered that ordinarily the girls were the least likely to commit the offence of seeking attention?

Adam Phillip’s the British psychoanalyst puts a different emphasis on seeking attention. He reckons it’s important to seek attention for survival. He also argues that the thing that most gets in the way of attention seeking – in the sense of being curious about the world and people around us – is the issue of shame. 

The problem with shame, it reduces out ability to attend. It closes off our minds to other possibilities. This can’t be a good thing. 

Shame is different from humility. The one a problem, the other a virtue. Though each a problem in excess. 

Shame cuts us off from one another; humility connects us through our shared humanity and ordinariness. It recognises we’re each not the best but we’re good enough. 

The poor fly who flew into my tea did not mean to end its life there. It might have already been at the base of my teacup hidden under the tea bag when I poured in boiling water and floated to the surface to be visible once I added milk. 

Or it might have mishandled a landing on the rim of my cup. 

It all happened so fast. Like life itself. 

It can seem interminable when we’re in it but the older I get the faster it goes, and I know in years to come and for Gerald Murnane, too, we’ll both simply be memories. His greater than mine as his legacy is far greater but in the scheme of things, how much do these thing matter except to our most sensitive and infantile selves who do not want to be forgotten.