Because I’m freezing

My youngest daughter is learning to drive. In these first few weeks she is having proper lessons with an RACV driving instructor before she is ready to go out and practice with her parents.
‘The instructor is so strict,’ she said to me the other day as I drove her to school. ‘I so much as creep off the white line a fraction and he orders me back.’ She turns towards me. ‘You don’t always stay on the white line.’

‘I know, ‘ I said. ‘But it’s like learning the rules of grammar. You need to be meticulous when you first learn them and follow the rules to the letter. Only when you understand them can you deviate.’

Learning the rules of the road are more essential to the preservation of life than learning the rules of grammar but I suspect there is merit in first learning to do something – whatever it is – strictly, according to some set of rules and then using your intuition to know when to break them.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the day I broke my leg last year, 4 September 2010. I must take care to avoid a repeat. Lightning, they say, never strikes in the same place twice. It’s unlikely I’ll break my leg again, but why, I wonder, is it such a time of anxiety?

Twenty years ago almost to the day, on 2 September 1991, the analysts gave me the sack from the psychoanalytic training. I do not write about this event in my blog as it seems too unacceptable to mention in such a public forum, besides it belongs to a part of my life I do not include here, my professional life. And yet it is an event that also sparked the writing of my thesis on the desire for revenge and so it is an essential brick in the wall of my story.

It’s funny how blogs represent only parts of our lives and other parts remain hidden from view. Mostly I hide the things of which I feel most deeply ashamed. Even as they peek out at me and beg to be included in my writing. Until I can move a little past the initial gut wrenching tug of shame I cannot speak about them. I must hide them from view. So it is with the analytic training.

Twenty years is a long time to feel so deeply about an unfortunate event and although I do not write in detail here about this experience, you can take my word for it, this rates for me as one of the worst experiences of my adult life.

Though of course, like so many traumatic experiences it has proved itself to be one of the most useful. It stimulated me to go back to writing, an activity I had abandoned once I hit adolescence, when I first decided on a career in the helping professions.

Here I shall include an image of my father circa 1964. I include it as a cryptic reference to my father who had an influence on the experiences to which I allude here and also to break up the text. I’m trying hard to respect people’s abhorrence within the the blogosphere for reams of writing.

There are two stories that come to mind here. The first I heard on the TV series Ballykissangel, when the priest, Peter Clifford, first acknowledges his love for Assumpta Fitzgerald

There’s this baby polar bear swimming in the sea and he climbs out, runs across the ice to his mother and says, ‘Mum, are you sure I’m a polar bear?’ And his Mum says. ‘Don’t be daft. Of course I’m sure. You have white fur, you eat fish. You’re a polar bear. Now get back into the sea.’

But the little polar bear is not satisfied. He jumps out again and goes up to his father and says, ‘Dad, am I really a polar bear?’ And his father’s says ‘What are you talking about? Of course you’re a polar bear. You’ve got white fur, you eat fish, you’re a polar bear. Why do you ask?

And the baby bear says, ‘Because I’m freezing.’

This story has stayed with me, as a statement of the pain of not belonging, a fish out of water, to use an ill chosen cliché.

The second anecdote derives from a you tube I saw by chance recently on the nature of creativity through Hilary’s blog. To be truly creative the photographer, Andrew Zuckerman, argues you need ‘curiosity and rigour’. He uses the example of an experiment he’d heard about where researches used three groups of mice under three different sets of conditions.

The first mouse had everything it needed in the cage, and nothing was required of it to meet its needs. A sort of mouse heaven. The second mouse also had everything it needed, but in order to get to it, the second mouse had to go through a simple series of routine tasks. The third mouse had everything it needed but to get to it this mouse had to leave its cage and go through an elaborate series of contraptions including a high ledge along which it needed to walk suspended above a tub of water before this third mouse could get what it needed or wanted.

Then the researchers measured the brain development of the mice. They found the first mouse showed no dendritic growth at all. Nothing in its brain changed during the research period. The second mouse grew new dendrites, but it was the third mouse which not only grew more dendrites but also grew connections between them. The point being that to grow we need to face our fears and challenges.

The first story suggests a wish to get out of what to the baby polar bear felt like an overwhelming challenge, to belong where he felt he did not belong, whereas the second one urges us to press on regardless. There is an optimal level of challenges we must face. too much challenge and we buckle under, not enough and we atrophy.

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the day on which I was dismissed from the psychoanalytic training and I did not even recognise it at the time, though I left my keys behind in the changing rooms of a clothes shop where I had tried on a shirt for size and I misplaced my credit card after I bought the shirt and could not find it later in the evening when I was out for dinner with my husband and went to pay for our meal.

I knew then, as we walked home from the restaurant and I had still not located my credit card that something was not quite right.

Not until now this morning, after I have relocated my credit card in another section of my wallet where I usually only put coins and notes not cards, do I realise how unsettled I am. And tomorrow – and this I remember in advance – is the second anniversary of my broken leg. All up a time of painful memories and anniversaries. I must take extra care today and tomorrow.

49 thoughts on “Because I’m freezing”

  1. Isn't there something called muscle memory — something that the body remembers, the heart still knows and perhaps even the soul, if the mind forgets.

    I wish you an easy day tomorrow — free of breaks of the body and the heart.

  2. The polar bear story made me laugh…..As another who has never really fitted anywhere I offer this, not mine but I wish it was: 'It is no measure of mental health to be well adapted to a profoundly sick society'. (Or something like that)

    You will find lots of blogs about 'why' some of us don't ever fit interspersed with more everyday topics in my blog.

    The anniversary of my father's death is looming. Lots of baggage and I think why I severely injured my foot 10 months ago and it has still not healed properly. But, as you say, we learn much more from adversity. So I really relate to the broken leg thing. It's good to stay awake!!

  3. Interesting idea – muscle memory. I have been working through a significant anniversary lately – although it has only just come to me what that is. It has explained much sadness and the sense of dislocation I have been feeling – although it is clear that there are no grounds for it in my current daily life. It seems that something within oneself remembers.

  4. I've put my car keys in the refrigerator, and never found them, my daughter did. I can happily say I found them the time I misplaced them in the freezer though.

  5. If one thinks of Mazlow's hierarchies, isn't it possible to rethink the mouse experiment not as comfort equalling no growth, but as an inability to move to the next stage as causing brain stop?
    That first mouse, with its physical needs met, needed to take the next step: find companionship/sexual congress. But, being alone, its progress to the next stage was completely stymied, and its brain couldn't function, because it couldn't move onwards.
    I think that one sees the same thing in people around us who feel defeated by circumstance.

  6. Elisabeth, I find that my shames and misfortunes are regular visitors to my blog even though I optimistically filed it under 'humour' when I first registered it.

    I've been fired and made a fool of in a couple of work situations and the memories are still strong. Years and months might pass and then something like an anniversary or an email from a friend I used to work with arrives and *bang* the scab's been ripped off again.

    Here in Geneva I've felt like the polar bear for three months and only now am becoming comfortable. It's of course a relief to realise that the fuzzy feelings are 'happy' and 'content' but they're also due to having had a few tough times to get through beforehand.

    Take care during these un-fun anniveraries and eat chocolate and laugh at a funny movie instead.

  7. I've heard of muscle memory, elizabeth and it makes enormous sense. It's as if our bodies know – etched somewhere deep in our DNA – things get measured. There are mind scars as well as body scars.

    It's uncanny the number of people lately who out of the blue, and unsolicited by me, have remembered my broken leg from last year, as if they too have an anniversary sense of time, in empathy with my muscle memory perhaps.

    Thanks for the good wishes, Elizabeth.

  8. I suspect there may be a baby polar bear story in many of us, MF, especially those who blog, however much we might also try to fit in.

    I'm sorry to hear that your father's death was problematic for you and especially that it might link with your unhealed foot.

    What funny souls we are and how sensitive we can be. If we can't figure it out in our heads our bodies send us messages.

    Thanks, MF.

  9. I agree, Christine, when that sense of dislocation sets in , as you say, it's as if 'something within oneself remembers' and however much our lives on the surface and in the here and now might cruise along seemingly well, something from the past creeps in and trips us up.

    I hope this anniversary of yours passes soon, and that whatever you learn from it makes things better for you.

    Thanks, Christine.

  10. It's terrible when you misplace keys, Who. I've lost them at the most inopportune of moments, only to run around frantically fearful of never getting home again, or of not being able to leave home in the first place.

    Frozen keys in the refrigerator, Who. Fancy that.
    Thanks, Dusty.

  11. Ah, River. I'm still curious as to why they sacked me. I've been trying to figure it out these past twenty years.

    Perhaps the fact that I write in this blog, perhaps the fact that I write at all and that I enter a public space so noisily, might have something to do with it, though I wasn't writing in the days of my sacking and I was certainly not blogging.

    It's not a total mystery to me now. More a clash of values, of perspectives and of personalities with a good mix of politics thrown in.

    Most things in life are like this, complex and multifaceted.

    One day I may be able to offer a clearer and more certain response. For now it will have to do.

    Thanks, River.

  12. You may well be right, Frances. I hadn't thought of this. In the way this experiment has been described to me the mice were on their own, but they may in fact have been partnered. I can't say for sure. And it's always a tad dangerous to extrapolate from animal research to human behaviour.

    On the other hand, I enjoy this research as a metaphor. I also enjoy your reflections as a deepening metaphor about our need for others to develop and grow.

    Thanks, Frances.

  13. The feel of those scabs peeled back with each recurring anniversary reaction is painful indeed, Kath.

    I have marveled at the seeming ease with which you've settled into life in Geneva over these past three months.

    Many many moons ago when I was still young my husband and I went to live in canberra, before we had children and before we were married for six months.

    In the beginning our time there was open ended. We went for my husband's work. I could not cope with the move. I rationalised it was because I am the daughter of migrants and there was just too much pain at the separation from those near and dear to me back home.

    But a move all the way away to Geneva is such a brave move, even with your beloved immediate family close by.

    Now I read that you, too, have your polar bear moments, understandably of course.

    I send you my best wishes and good will. By the time you come home, to Australia that is, you might find the wrench at the other end tough too. These transitions are so challenging.

    Thanks, Kath. I value your kind and thoughtful words, always tinged with your own special brand of humour.

  14. The ghosts of times past can be fearsome, Laoch and as you say, it's easy to get lost.

    I did not mention in my blog that tomorrow is Father's day. Is that the case for you elsewhere in the world? Now when I think of it I see I have posted a picture of my father. Uncanny isn't it, how these things fall together?

    Thanks, Laoch.

  15. I relate to the little polar bear in a big way. We all wonder if we’re normal. We pretend we’re not bothered about not being the same as everyone else but when we realise that that means owning up to being abnormal then maybe we’re not so keen to highlight what makes us so different to everyone else. Ken Armstrong put up a post decently talking about anniversaries. This is my comment:

    “Time is a funny thing. I have an odd disregard for it. When I’m done with it I’m done with it. I tend to think in terms of ‘a while ago’, ‘a long while ago’, ‘a bloody long while ago’ and so on and so forth. And those designations don’t translate very well into years so there is an emotional component at work there I suspect: the more I feel the passing years the longer those years feel. I have three train tickets in my wallet marking three significant events in my life, two of them being deaths. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head when either of my parents died. Having checked the tickets I find that my father died on 11 December 1995 and my mother on 4 July 1998 and I’m still not sure how long a while ago that feels to me. That my dad has been dead for nearly sixteen years kinda surprises me. In my head I’m still a teenager and no one should be able to look back sixteen years at anything other than their birth. I remember once talking to my daughter about punk rock and she gently reminded me that she hadn’t been born until 1980 and, yes, that makes her thirty-one now and that’s another thing about time. How the hell did I manage to have a thirty-one-year-old daughter? I feel like I’ve lived four lives since that time. I really don’t get time.”

    The simple fact is I don’t have an attachment to anniversaries, even happy ones. I never forget my wedding anniversary because it’s more than my life’s worth to forget it and the same goes with Valentine’s Day which my wife once called “a holy day of obligation.” That doesn’t mean that there aren’t events in my life that I don’t recall from time to time with joy or sadness or a mixture of the two. I’m the same when it comes to physical locations. My parents were cremated but I have no idea what happened with the ashes; they could well be sitting in a couple of cardboard boxes in some vault for all I know because I never thought to ask. I’ve never got why people need to trek to a graveyard to remember a dead loved one but then I’ve never understood why people feel they need to go to church to worship God. I don’t recall Jesus dashing off to the local synagogue so he could have a quiet tête-à-tête with his dad.

    So I feel like the bear. I see all these people around me getting maudlin because specific dates are approaching and before the end of July when I checked my wallet I couldn’t even remember the years my parents died. That’s not normal. Twenty years ago? That would be 2nd September 1991. I would have been thirty-two. Nope. Had to go and get my CV to check but my best guess would be that I was just starting that three year spell where I wrote nothing and, in fact, on flicking through my big red folder I find that the last poem I wrote was on 16th August 1991 and nothing thereafter until I wrote my first novel. So I would have also been building up to my second major depression. I remember that time – it was a tough time – but I’m not sentimental about it. Anyway all I can say is that while you were going though one of the worst experiences of your life so was I. And, for some twisted reason, learning that always makes us feel a bit better, doesn’t it?

  16. I am currently drafting a blog post that will expose more of me than I've ever shared, and that is saying something because I am fairly open about event my darkest parts. I have an anniversary of something important coming up on September 11th. I've wanted to write about it for a long time and couldn't figure out how to set the stage. The 10th anniversary seemed the way. Oh, certainly I'm scared, even though it doesn't show me in a bad light, I don't think. But it is intensely personal and colors everything that came and went before and after, and I'm determined to post it. Thank you, Lis, for making me just a little more sure of myself. Just because something is not made of sunshine and flowers does not mean it shouldn't be shared.

  17. It is a great comfort to me now, Jim, knowing that twenty years ago we were both suffering, though neither of us knew it about the other then.

    I know that at the time, despite being surrounded by my family and friends, and one or two collegial well-wishes, I felt deeply alone.

    I remember the day after the news came, I’d been to see my analyst. I’ve written about this elsewhere. After the session I could not bear to get back into my car and drive home to my life of obligations and what now felt like so much failure.

    My analyst lived near the sea. I crossed the Road and made my way down to the shore. One foot in front of the other, step after step along the sand, I walked against the wind. The sun was a pale yellow and seagulls skidded along the surface of the water. The sand was caked hard and dry. The tide was out. A lone mother pushed her pram and called to her child who was shoeless and in long trousers, ‘Don’t get wet.’ The little boy ran up and down the sand, narrowly missing each curling wave. The foam left behind a frothy line of smiles along the beach. His footsteps were soon covered with each new watery assault.

    I saw these things in slow motion and wondered whether I might walk forever along this golden beach. When they noticed me gone, would they worry, would they realise how much it mattered to me, this wrench, this gutting, this appalling event?

    I’m glad to say, I’ve survived, as you have survived. I’m sorry to hear that you still feel polar bear like, despite all the resonances from your fellow bloggers. You remind me of me, and yet you are so different from me.

    Thanks also for alerting me to Ken’s post. It’s beautiful writing, so poignant and layered. As is the whole of your comment here.

    They say time heals all wounds. I’m not sure about this. I suspect that time makes wounds more bearable, or whatever it is that goes on over time, but there are still the Miss Havershams of this world for whom no amount of time can heal the pain.

    Thanks, Jim.

  18. There is rigor and logic in this post that reveals a marvelous intellect.

    Marvelous elucidation, yet a gentle traverse into our own sense of self, our dealing with emotions that are too hard to be examined.
    Most interesting.
    Very helpful as well.

  19. I'm glad you find the post helpful, Rosaria, and thank you for your kind comments. I know this is an especially hard time for you, too, harder far than anything I could imagine having to endure, so your words feel especially dear to me.

  20. It's amazing how much of an impact the past can have on our present and future, Pat, but we need not let it overtake our lives altogether. Thanks for your generous and thoughtful words here.

  21. Thanks to you, Glynis, for your kind words. The two anniversary days are almost over and I'm still in one piece I'm pleased to say, both physically and mentally.

  22. Lesley, I shall keep an eye out for your post about the anniversary for you on 11 September, which also happens to be one of my sisters' birthdays. Not such a good day for a birthday these days. Too loaded down with other meanings.

    I agree just because somethings not cheerful or full of flowers doesn't mean it's not worth writing about.

    Thanks, Lesley.

  23. I wandered over from a comment you posted on Fiona's blog.

    I know I am not a polar bear. But I step onto the ice to say I appreciate the way you created a space for me to think about the things I am ashamed about… One of which is not finishing college, (–it is the reason behind it that still makes me want to cover my eyes.) Your writing and the comments of your readers were something I will be mulling over for sometime. Thank you. Time to get off the ice.

  24. Shame is such a powerful and generally aversive emotion, Teri. The trouble with it most often is that the shame itself keeps the feeling hidden and that way it makes it harder to work beyond it.

    Feelings are useful in so far as they shift about, in my view at least. Shame tends to create an unhelpful stuckness in our minds that can sometimes escalate like a hidden snowball and take over from other emotions and so we can't function as well as we might. Please forgive me all these wintry images.

    Maybe you can write about the awful experience. Often times I find it helps to shift it, the shame of the experience that is.

    Once it sees the light of day, the thing that initially shamed us becomes less monstrous, as a rule, though perhaps not in every case. I'm trying not to be too absolute in my words here.

    Thanks, Teri.

  25. Dear Elisabeth, I can not believe it is a year already. I am sure we all remember that day with you.
    I hope your leg has fully recovered. It is the 5th today, so I hope yesterday passed without to much disturbance.;)
    I love your mouse story and the polar bear story as well. I have always felt like I did not belong with the crowd and I always took paths less traveled. Being challenged in my life is a must and having undergone a big change recently I can nothing but confirm that theory. And often we can face larger challenges then we think as we are stronger then we might believe.;)

  26. The research regarding the mice again reminds me of our misconceptions about heaven, a topic that remains critical to me. The shear pointlessness of eternal leisure does not sound like a happy way to spend eternity.

    I now have a new image looking back in the mirror as I emerge from my daily shower, the scar running down the middle of my chest from the nape of my neck to the end of my sternum. The POINT is that I am ALIVE to gaze upon this scar and the hell I went through to earn it. It makes me appreciate life all the more.

  27. Good luck with the leg Elizabeth. Possibly it's your brain telling you it didn't really enjoy the last break so "BE CAREFUL". You learnt something.
    About blogs – go ahead write more than 150 words – there are those of us who like a good story well told.
    And yes we do hide things – which is why I gave mine the title "MyMissingLife". But still I hide things. I can say that I came out about something I hate to have people know about me recently. It felt like maybe i've grown up and can trust the world to love me for who I am not what i look like.
    It's here if you're interested:

  28. Each year seems to go faster than the last, Zuzanna and this last one even more so. The anniversary of my broken leg passed without mishap, and hopefully next year when 4 september comes along i might almost not notice its passing at all.

    I'm with you about life's challenges and the degree to which confronting them can sometimes lead us along lonely and non-conventional roads.

    Thanks, Zuzana.

  29. I agree Robert, the idea of perpetual level as implied by the state of heaven would not appeal to me one bit. I find myself most enriched by the diversity of life with all its ups and downs. Scars, like the one you describe are all part of that journey and, as you say, reminders of our struggle.

    Thanks Robert.

  30. I enjoyed your post very much, Little Hat. It speaks to me again of the ways in which one person's shame might be another's curiosity.

    I always hated my teeth, but I've grown beyond that concern now, at least the look of them bothers me far less than their health or otherwise.

    With age it seems our priorities change and what once shamed us unmercifully as children can shift into something we become increasingly able to talk about, once we've got it out that first time.

    Thanks, Little Hat.

  31. The third mouse probably broke its leg, poor dear, as part of the life learning process.

    I broke my leg a year ago, Ow, it still hurts. So much for personal growth.

    Can it be that scars are the fore-echo of further falls, and further personal developments, to come?

    (Once you get into your seventies, it's all one large echo-chamber.)

  32. I had physio, TC, to help improve my once broken leg. I think it helped. My leg no longer aches, but lately I've been having trouble with my shoulder.

    ' Oh my bones', I say regularly and one of my daughters begs me to stop . It reminds her of Smallweed from Dickens's Bleakhouse,

    'Oh my bones and sockets. Shake me up, Judy'.

    Roll on the seventies and thanks, Tom.

  33. I have no problem with words – love words, in fact, so continue to write and I shall read.
    What you say is both interesting and true and needs an awakening every so often. I have had many challenges. It is hard to climb back in when you are on the outside, but it is important to let go of some things in the past – like cutting elastic so that it doesn't keep on pinging back. There is no need for shame. It was an unpleasant experience. It can go in the box labelled just that and the present in which you live can contiune without opening the box.
    I find from your blog that you are both intelligent and iteresting and although the past has shaped you, partly, you are who you are now and not who you were twenty years ago.

    Hope that this is encouraging.

    ALSO – I am off tomorrow to Ireland and will be staying close to 'Ballykissangel' which is actually a village called Avoca. When we lived in Ireland, one of my daughters took part in a crowd scene when they were racing horses on the beach. She was delighted to have a day off school and to be paid into the bargain.

  34. Fancy living near Ballykissangel, Aguja. And that your daughter features in one of the episodes as an extra. I know it's a total fiction and et that series will stay with me. It plumbed some strange depths inside, especially the Catholic quality that it stays in my bones.

    I agree Aguja that the me that exists now is very different from the one I was even ten yeas ago. We all keep changing, but there are links between past and present identities and I enjoy revisiting the past and reflecting on how things once were as opposed to how they might be now.

    Thanks, Aguja.

  35. Dave, I have a large, growing and generally regrettable anthology of these sorts of "misplacements"; but rather than embarrass myself further by compounding the admission with a lengthy enumeration of instances, let me simply pass along a private (and to be honest, less than entirely successful, but still) strategy of coping: that is, pretending to oneself, once the chastening discovery has occurred, that one had had a cunning plan all along… for example, in a case such as the one you have cited, that there had actually been an original intent of making iced tea. The teapot was exactly where it was meant to be. The grand brilliance of the larger plan had simply slipped one's mind.

  36. That polar bear story is a very old joke, it was told on TV by a big blonde woman, years before the kissangel show was ever on. I can never remember jokes and would have forgotten it, except she was so good looking.
    As far as writing goes I've met a lot of public servant women who want to be Virginia Woolf. Their trouble is they won't walk the thin ledge. You pay for everything.

  37. A tea pot in the fridge is a remarkable misplacement, Dave. I wonder whether it was empty, warm or cold. That might make a difference.

    I've been known to hang my keys on the hook with the details instead of on the key hook. Any hook in a storm. I'm glad to be among you. Thanks, Dave.

  38. I'm not sure who it is we seek to reassure with these sorts of strategies, TC to Dave, our own or others.

    My youngest daughter was telling me today how much she dreads my serious decline into old old age.

    She has the fantasy I will never wash, the house will grow squalid with unwashed dishes, the cat will die and rot under the piano and I will not notice and all I will do night and day is sit at the computer and write.

    What a dreamy thought. A bit off the track I know but a view of myself 'misplaced' perhaps.

    Thanks TC.

  39. I wonder what point the big blond woman on TV years ago was making in telling the story of the baby polar bear, Robert? The same as the priest? – that it's hard belonging to an icy group where you are confined to certain limited activities like swimming in the ocean and living off fish.

    As for the wish to be Virginia Woolf, as far as I can see, there's only one VW and she certainly walked the ledge.

    Thanks, Robert.

  40. "I'm trying hard to respect people's abhorrence within the the blogosphere for reams of writing."

    I find that comment a bit ironic. One of the virtues of the Internet that's often touted is its limitlessness. You can write an essay or story as long as you want without worrying about running out of paper or ink. Unfortunately, the intended audience's patience doesn't have a similar limitlessness. People seem much more willing to invest the time in something lengthy if it's in a book or magazine. Is this because a computer more physically resembles a TV set, and you can easily surf through web sites in much the same way you can through channels that we've come to expect the same kind of instant gratification that we get from television? I'm not sure.

    This comment is possibly too long.

  41. The limitlessness of the Internet, Kirk, is its greatest advantage and disadvantage, as you say.

    There's no proper clearing house is there? It all goes up and stays there. We have to rely on ourselves to do the sorting and our eyes can get so tired with the effort. No wonder we learn to skim read and love our photos and images, as short cuts to an emotion.

    Thanks, Kirk.

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