Audacity and shame

Not much to go on. A hint of something that nags at the periphery of my mind. The joy of the new.

Those five words and I’m transported back to a time when everything was new, as it is for my twelve-month-old grandson who has a habit of pursing his lips into a tight O whenever he sees something that enthralls him.

Oh, he says. Ohhhh, something new. 

I scratched my lips in my sleep last night. I felt it as it happened, a brush of my hand across my face to dislodge a few loose hairs that were pressing on my neck, and my fingernail came in contact with my lip and scraped off the top layer.

I ignored it till this morning. The congealed blood of a tiny wound on that most delicate of surfaces, my topmost lip, which is prone to cold sores and fungal infections, so I must take care.

It’s so easy to hurt yourself, so easy to stub a toe or walk hip height into a cupboard and bruise the bone and surrounding tissue. So easy to be careless and fling your body around as if its ability to preserve its walls is endless, even as it’s not.

‘Audacity always flirts with shame.’ An Adam Phillips’ special.

The analyst comes out with sentences like this, short and pithy and filled with resonance. Breathtaking and yet, I want to scream out at him,

‘What gives you such confidence, to state your ideas with such conviction when so many others grapple with the possibilities of other meanings. Never certain of anything.’ 

Audacity ALWAYS flirts with shame.

Is it possible there are moments when an audacious gesture, when an effort to rise above your years can travel unaccompanied by any such fears whatsoever? Though I take his point. 

Even writing this here now is accompanied by the ever-faithful internal voice that says, who’d want to read this crap?

As a writer you know this voice so well, you learn to ignore it. You learn to press on with fingers at the keyboard, pen on paper, you learn to push ahead despite the nagging fears you have nothing of any value to say. 

In a novel-writing class several years ago, I threw out a quote from AS Byatt’s novel Still Life, about the need for a wool-gathering time.

” She remembered from what now seemed the astonishing free and spacious days of her education the phenomenon of the first day’s work on a task.  One had to peel one’s mind from its run of preoccupations: coffee to buy, am I in love, the yellow dress needs mending, Tim is unhappy, what is wrong with Marcus, how shall I live my life?  It took time before the task in hand seemed possible, and more before it came to life, and more still before it became imperative and obsessive.

There had to be a time before thought, a wool-gathering time when nothing happened, a time of yawning, of wandering eyes and feet, of reluctance to do what would finally become delightful and energetic.  Threads of thought had to rise and be gathered and catch on other threads of old thought, from some unused memory store.”

I was tired of listening to people go on about where they might send their manuscript and how they might get a foot in the door of the publishing world. As if they were selling sausages at a marketplace. 

I wanted to worry myself with these concerns only when I had what felt close enough to a finished product.

‘All very well for you,’ one man said. A tall man who once walked the pilgrimage Via Francigena in Italy and described how when he reached the shrine his feet were red raw, his sandals in tatters.

Here was a man who knew how to persevere, but now in his sixties, he was wary of life sneaking past him. He did not have time for wool-gathering. He needed to get on with it.

When we started the novel writing class that year Janey Runci, our brave teacher, challenged us to look into our motives for writing. 

‘Let’s face it’ she said. ‘Most of the books you’re working on in this class will never reach publication.’

It was a sobering thought and enough to stop some people from returning to complete their novels. But a good fifty percent of us persevered.

I sometimes wonder where they are now, those would-be writers from my novel writing class. I do not hear of their book launches within the small sphere of publishing in Australia or at least not among the awards.

But awards are another notch up, several notches up from even being able to complete the writing of a novel, or even a short piece of writing like this.

The internal voice that screams at you to be silent is always there hovering over your shoulder like a banshee screeching death is not too far away and then you can have a rest, for now, if you continue like this, you’ll only bore your audience.

If you can find one, and for the rest, consider it a writing exercise, going up and down the musical scales of words, repetitive notes up and down, rehearsals behind the scenes, but far from the real thing.

That dangerous place…

‘That dangerous place, the family home’. Adrienne Rich.

One twilight, as my brother and I walked towards the church for Saturday evening Mass, the thought crossed my mind, I might not be safe with him. 

The church was a good half hour walk from where we lived, up Cox Street to Robross and then through to Centre Dandenong Road. My brother walked close by, close enough for me to smell his sweat against the neighbouring roses that were heavy with the scent of late spring. 

My brother knew things. Lots of things. He read books on Teilhard de Chardin’s palaeontologic explorations. He knew all there was to know about the Greek and Roman gods. He knew about numbers. 

We did not talk about feelings. We did not talk about our life at home with an unpredictable father who might at any moment lash out. We spoke of the things that existed in the past or across the sea in countries I could only imagine or saw in images from the pile of National Geographics my mother collected from the Old Peoples home where she worked. 

I looked to the ground as we walked. To keep an eye on any bumps in the ridges between pavers that ran across every footpath. Not that I feared tripping but there was a rhythm to our footsteps, a rhythm to the steps we took one after the other that held me. 

My brother told me the story of a Cyclops with his one giant eye, and the way the only chance Odysseus had of getting past him was to take a sharp stick and poke it straight through. 

I saw the blood red wound in my mind’s eye and something of the horror of that moment left me unsteady on my feet. Fearful of the unknown. 

Could my brother become as unpredictable as my father? Could he decide on a whim to grab hold of me and push me into the bushes. Could he decide to treat me like an object there to give him pleasure? 

I did not know how, only that men preyed upon the bodies of women to feed their lustful appetites, or so the nuns taught us. And as women, we needed to be careful not to lead them on. 

But this was my brother, and brothers and sisters were different. We had a sacred bond. We left each other’s bodies alone. We did not even notice one another’s bodies, though my older brothers had taken to calling my older sister fat. They called her ‘compost heap’, as if she was full of all the rubbish people threw out to rot in piles and in time feed to their gardens. 

I saw my sister likewise, as fat, not because she was but because her body was changing, much as my own was firming up. The dresses I wore in grade six were too tight around my waist and I grew worried about my increasing height. I was taller than my mother by then and feared I might become a freak and grow as tall as my tallest brother and people would peer at me, at this unsightly thing, a tall girl whom no one would ever want to marry. 

There were girls taller than me in my class at school, but their height matched their shapes and they held themselves well, as though they knew they were ready for the world and would not grow any taller. They would stop then and prepare themselves for womanhood, while I was still a scrawny though thickening insect and my brother in my imagination had become a lizard with a long tongue who might soon swallow me whole.

Such thoughts when they slipped into my mind were troubling for their ferocity, for the way they left me breathless, as if they were accurate, even as I knew my imagination had travelled into overload.

On the cusp of summer, the twilight extended through to our arrival at church. As we walked through the door, I saw shadows on the wall as the sinking sun behind us left pink smears across the skyline. 

Everything was infused with the celestial light of in between times, between darkness and light and we were shifting from that space of seeing things with clarity into blurred images of uncertainty. 

I knew nothing in those days about the unconscious or the way things might sneak into our awareness. ‘Beta elements’ as the analyst Wilfred Bion describes, unprocessed experience from past trauma that sits inside a person’s mind and can erupt at unpredictable times. 

I cannot say for sure now why those times were so unpredictable, only they were, as unpredictable as when a person drinks too much alcohol and their usually steady mind slips into a fug of paranoia and delusion. They no longer feel safe and trusting and can lash out at the ones around them, the safe targets, like wife and children, as in the case of my father.

And these beta elements exist in all of us. Usually, we keep them in check. But there are times – in between times when twilight descends, or when the moon is full and there is too much brightness on an otherwise dark night, or when a person alters their brain chemistry with alcohol or drugs, or grief or rage or an excess of emotion – when those undigested elements are shot into the atmosphere. 

And any small and vulnerable creatures in their sights are swallowed whole.