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. 


Envy: spoiled grapes

There was a time I collected heroes, like people collect stamps or porcelain figurines or coins or guns.

I collected heroes to shore up a sense of myself as someone attached to someone else, someone who might make up for my shortcomings.

Not that I thought about it like this at the time. At the time, I always imagined that by attaching to this person I might better myself by association.

I went once to hear a talk from a prominent Melbourne psychoanalyst – not one of my heroes, but esteemed by many – who was speaking on the topic of envy. As he spoke, I recognised something in his tone that hinted at contempt for his audience, we the people seated before him on hard backed vinyl chairs in an over air-conditioned room that made us want to huddle our coats closer.

Was it only me who smarted at the sense he was mocking us, not only his audience but more especially the people who went to see him for help, those whom he talked about as case examples?

A woman who had approached him to deal with her anxiety. A woman whom he considered could have helped herself more.

A woman, who wanted him, her analyst, ‘to wipe her bum’.

He said those words through tight teeth as though he thought this woman was not worthy of his time.

‘We only wipe the bottoms of very small children,’ he said. ‘At a certain age you need to start wiping your own.’

How the issue of wiping bums relates to the notion of envy, I cannot recall, but his talk left me cold.

This analyst has since been discredited for sexual boundary violations, and he has moved out of the glare and into the shadows.

This is what happens to some of my heroes.

Others, like Gerald Murnane glow more brightly than ever. And the writer Helen Garner, both are writers whom I have followed, held firm to their almost every written word, admired them from afar, but now as I age, am I falling victim to that most ghastly of sins, the sin of envy?

Now as I become more critical of my heroes, am I simply jealous, or worse still envious?

Envy is worth thinking about because it is insidious. Envy, unlike jealously, cannot acknowledge admiration for another person.

When you’re jealous of someone, you know it. You feel it in your bones.

I wish I could sing like her. I wish I could write like him. I wish I lived in a house like that. I’m jealous of my brother who is ten times wealthier than me.

Even as I tell myself these things do not matter and I’m good enough as I am, I can still feel the purple pain of jealousy.

I try to handle it by acknowledging this feeling, to myself at least.

You’re just jealous and why not? What, he or she has done is marvellous. Anyone would feel a hint of jealousy alongside their own paltry efforts.

But envy, now that’s something else again. When you’re envious of someone or something, you can’t admit to yourself that you wish it was yours or that you admire what someone else has or can do.

When you’re envious of someone, your impulse is to put them down, to belittle them, to decry their value.

When you’re envious you can’t even let yourself know that there’s something that you want.

It’s rather like that fox and those grapes that were out of reach.

The fox saw the lush purple grapes hanging high overhead and he wanted them. He tried again and again to reach them and when finally, out of breath, he realised those grapes were beyond his reach, he told himself they were bitter anyhow.

Beware of envy. It spoils things.

It spoils things for the person envied and for the one doing the envying.

It spoils things for everyone.

Be jealous, by all means. In many ways it’s a compliment to those whom you admire, but be wary of the hidden charge of envy, it can ruin everything.