Who are you?

‘Peer over the edge of doubt’. Follow the crooked roads, the ones without a destination. 

When I have ‘doubts’ that I might cease to be. Apologies to John Keats. 

I’m moving through the Brontës, Anne’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall and now Emily’s Wuthering Heights. She who died at 30. Hard to imagine these days, a talent snatched away before her prime though in the 1800s your twenties were your prime. Now it’s more your thirties and forties.

There was a time many years ago when the Jungian analyst Peter O’Connor wrote a book on the midlife crisis. My husband considered he was going through one. Just on thirty-five, as I recall, and restless in his public service job. It was time to go back to university, which he did. 

My mid-life crisis happened a few years later, for me at forty. When the analysts decided I was unsuitable to be among them. A tedious topic and one I resist entering as I’ve done it to death over a twelve-year period in an 80,000-word thesis and a book that refuses to see the light of day.

These are my doubts. These doubts whose edge I must peer over.

We’ve passed through the shortest day; the mid-winter equinox and things can only get better now with the slowly increasing daylight. A friend told me, it’s very British to endlessly talk about the weather or to use it as an opener and once at a short story competition awards night, the adjudicator talked about what a mistake it was to begin a story with the weather. Yet so many stories begin with just that. Weather places us in a mood, even if in the blazing heat of summer our hearts can be iced over. 

There’s a professor at George Washington University in America who has come under fire for her concerns about Palestine. Lara Sheehi teaches psychology and feminism, among other things, and is also a psychoanalyst.

A bright cookie you’d say and lovely to look at from the YouTube clips I’ve watched. Her wavy dark hair spilling from the top of her head like the luxuriant branches of a tree. Bright and vibrant eyes. 

Sheehi’s been accused of taking the relational turn and considering the world of the social too far within psychoanalytic circles, by placing what one man calls activism at its centre. The old freedom warrior argument, but more, she’s been accused of being antisemitic. 

Her university investigated the claims of a couple of Jewish students who took her to task after what Sheehi describes as a ‘brown bag’, an informal conversation held after class. It was not part of her teaching. But something in the conversation led these students to consider Sheehi antisemitic. They lodged a complaint.

The university investigated and found Sheehi not guilty, but the president of one of the prestigious psychoanalytic institutes in America who tried to stop ‘activism’ from entering the discussion of psychoanalytic concerns has resigned in the backlash he copped over his leadership. And that was that.

Doer-done-to and the furore to follow. 

I tell myself I must not take sides, or even think about it as a question of side taking, but here I am. I find myself supporting Sheehi’s position just as I support the position of trans activists who are likewise accused of being too zealous in their attempts to stifle those who might seek to stifle them.

The conservative element calls for conversation, but does not see that in certain conversations there are implicit assumptions loaded with microaggressions and ongoing abuse.

Like the idea of trans women infiltrating the women’s toilets and change rooms for the purpose of assaulting other women. As if trans women are still men in disguise.

This is an abuse of transwomen, and refusal to acknowledge they are no longer men. Besides, men don’t need to disguise themselves as women to abuse other women. They’ve been doing it for centuries without disguise. 

It’s hard to get your mind around the idea that someone might be born in a body that clashes with their sense of themselves and that over time against the injunctions of the society and families into which they were born, such people might seek to shift the order of things to better match their sense of themselves.

The ’unruly I’, as Jeannine Ouellette calls it.

You are who you think you are. Or you are not. You are who other people think you are. 

You are all manner of things. But your sense of yourself, whatever identity you lay claim to internally, must account for something, even if others might challenge it. And you might challenge it yourself. 

Peer over the edge of your doubts. Onto a clump of mistletoe hacked from our tree. Mistletoe is a parasite and does little harm when contained. Pigeon carriers for seeds. But sometimes they become creatures with sinewy arms that will swallow you whole.  Colonisers. 

Temporarily wounded

‘We are all weightless in the end’. And yet our lives are measured from our earliest days ounce by ounce, gram by gram, molecule by molecule, as if we exist only in the material weight of our beings rather than in our spirts, which are as weightless as dust motes. And almost as invisible, except in certain lights when they catch the sun. 

They suspended a DANGER sign in red and white over the Camberwell junction in the days before authorities installed a similar set of traffic lights at the intersection of Auburn Road and Oxley Roads. To slow people down even when people travelled more slowly. Their cars unable to gather speed, but people rode without seat belts and loaded their cars with as many bodies as possible. When families were large and distances wide, and with limited public transport. 

My father ran his grey station wagon into another car or was it the other way round at this intersection? His car was mangled but only one body suffered damage, my elder sister whose leg was in plaster from an earlier fall. She’d been playing with our brothers in a tree. Getting up the tree was easy but getting back down trickier.

Just swing down with this branch one brother told her and obedient child she grabbed the branch and it snapped. She hit the ground and could hear the crack of bone. Her brothers carried her home.  Our father was convinced it needed nothing other than his care and her rest until morning. 

By this time it had swollen to twice its size and despite his makeshift splint and hatred of all people medical, my father and mother took her to the hospital where she was x-rayed, the brake confirmed and she was rolled in plaster of Paris for several weeks. Her fame at school sealed by the mark of white that in any school signalled a person of note, a person different from all others as she walked on crutches and her leg was in plaster different from one day to the next. 

If she had travelled permanently on crutches it would have been a different story. Then she would be shunned as disabled. But the temporarily wounded attract attention among young folks.

For this reason, I too decided it would be good to break a bone, but no matter how often I let my body tumble, the only time my bones broke came later years. Though one of my father’s favourite wounds one he could attend with impunity happened when I was ten. 

At the Camberwell swimming pool which we called the Baths, a blue sea of water wide at the shallow end and narrow at the deep with a baby’s pool next door and the oddest of outhouses on either side en route to the men’s and women’s change rooms.

These tall structures were open at either end. You were meant to enter on arrival before or after you visited the change rooms and before you entered the baths to shower under a blast of cold water from within this white tiled extravaganza that almost no one used. Built in the days when people washed less or when chlorine in pools was not yet invented and they worried over for the water’s health.

Near the female cubicle five steps led down to the women’s change rooms. A metal banister ran down the side and one day I swung over and under like a monkey. My strong arms took my weight until they did not, and I fell onto the concrete, jarring my shoulder.

‘It’s your collar bone,’ my father said as he draped a torn strip of old bedsheet across my shoulder, down around my waist then back again. Mummified and indignant. Terrified with my father’s hands on my body and disappointed my wound was not greater. 

The pain passed overnight and I took off the bandage in the morning spared my father’s ministrations, the white coated stranger of a doctor far better than the man whose touch could turn a body to stone. Not so weightless in the end.