My mother’s piano

I have been following some of the discussion on the blog No place for sheep, in part a debate over feminism, in part over freedom of speech and all because of one woman’s threat to sue another for defamation.

I am amazed at the heat that’s generated there. The language from those who comment is largely academic, or religious or occasionally a rant.

I do not feel equipped to enter into the discussion. It terrifies me. I stand in awe of Jennifer Wilson’s ability to respond to her detractors. I could not sleep at night if it were me.

The comments roll in thick and fast, as if we are on a battle field and the first line of attackers arrive only to be repelled, soon followed by the next line of attack. Of course there are many, perhaps more commenters, who are on Jennifer Wilson’s side.

It puts me in mind of the nature of conflict and how we deal with it, on line and off. I’m not so good at it myself. A fight wells up and I can feel my heart thumping, the perspiration under my arm pits shudders to the surface and my mouth goes dry.

I pitch myself back in time to my mother’s piano in the hallway of the Camberwell house. It is a tall and dark hearse-like instrument with keys made of real ivory. I think of all the dead elephants that went into the making of my mother’s piano, elephants all the way from Africa.

The name above the keys in gold lettering, ornate as a dancer, takes me to Europe in my imagination. A German name maybe, or Austrian. A name that speaks of dead composers, or ancient carpenters, cabinet makers, craftsmen, always men, who built the box that holds the sliced elephant tusks on my mother’s piano.

My mother plays Die Fledermaus. She sings along, Dutch words, military words, words that take her elsewhere back to her girlhood, back to her old life, back home to the Marnixplein where the life she leads now was still a dream, filled with hopefulness and colour, filled with the joy of her youth, her beauty and her prospects.

My mother’s voice rises above the roar of trucks along Canterbury Road. My mother’s voice rises above the cacophony of voices from the television. My father turns the dial higher and higher. The television volume goes up and up.

The house is alive with noise: my mother’s music, my father’s silent screams for attention, louder and louder and I cannot think for the noise of my parents, for the drums of war, the aeroplanes that fly over head, the bombs that drop.
We are silenced.

And all the time behind my eyes an ache swells. I don’t want to fight, I want to cry.

Have you no shame?

Yesterday afternoon one of my daughters dragged inside a potted olive tree from the back yard. We brushed it down to release the spiders and their cobwebs, and then rested the tree on a tray in the living room. This way we can keep watering it during the tree’s enforced imprisonment inside over the next few weeks.

My daughter has since decorated it with a few Christmas baubles, not too many or the tree begins to look ugly, at least in my daughter’s view.

A minimalist olive tree to represent the flavour of Christmas.

Is it a feature of aging that I become more and more jaded each year by the demands of Christmas, the demands to celebrate, the demands to buy, the demands to close up the year with good will, when my emotional bucket is almost full?

I could see the same exhaustion in my mother’s eyes when I was young, whenever Christmas came around, that same sense of ‘how will I ever keep up with the demands?’ And yet my mother relished Christmas more than me, I suspect. She still does.

I must be stressed. The rash has come back, not as vehemently as last time during my holiday in the Grampians in September this year but I can see the raised bumps under the surface of my skin and I am beginning to itch again.

At least this time I have a solution in the form of a quick hit with cortisone and then slowly wean myself off the stuff, but if this rash should come back a third time then I suspect a visit to another doctor might be in order.

The trouble with writing autobiographically, one of the troubles at least, is that it can evoke shame. I start with a thought, but all too soon the inner voices say: Now hold on, wait a bit, what will so and so think about that? How will your daughters read this? And what about those others in your life who might reflect differently on what you write here.

Have you no shame?

I wrote a few words for an online colloquium on psychotherapy recently. ‘I hate to be abandoned,’ the words popped into my head and down onto the page. I qualified them with more thoughtful and erudite comments about the nature of our universal fears of abandonment from infancy onwards and then sent them off.

All night long I cursed myself. I tossed and turned. I could not sleep for shame, for fear that certain of my colleagues, most of whom I do not know and will never know – it’s an international colloquium, rather like the blogosphere but seemingly with more at stake, professional reputations and the like – for fear of what others might think of this clearly dysfunctional human being.

Even as I believe others feel this way too.

Why do you do it? I asked myself and then answered my question. To stir things up. All those stuffy voices spouting theory.

Why can’t we write as human beings? Why can’t we write life as we experience it? Why must we always cover up our insecurities in abstract words that protect us and others from the rawness of it all?

‘You can’t say that,’ someone will say. ‘You can’t write that.’ Recently I read a review in which Andrew Reimer talked about Joan Didion’s book, Blue Nights , a memoir on the death of her daughter.

I’ve yet to read Didion’s book but it’s next on my agenda. I look forward to it, especially after reading her gut wrenching The Year of Magical Thinking.

I want my gut to be wrenched apart by such honest and breathtaking writing, but Reimer reckons that such writing should not happen. He has ethical misgivings. ‘The thought of her buffing and polishing these self-conscious works of literary art for public consumption, for us the readers or perhaps voyeurs, troubles me,’ Reimer writes.

I do not share the man’s reasoning. Why ever not write about our grief?
Or does it make him feel ashamed on Didion’s behalf. The way our children might feel when we embarrass them in public or vice versa, when they embarrass us.

At the same time I suspect the tension inside between the wish to write and the fear that our imagined audience will disapprove might facilitate the writing. It’s rather like the way in which our optimal anxiety before giving a talk enables us to present our talk in a lively and engaging way.

Oh, but it makes me feel sick in my stomach every time I worry about my imagined audience when the fog of shame descends.

All I want to do is to run away and hide, and a Christmas olive tree is too spindly and light of leaves to offer much by way of camouflage.