sensation returning to a paralyzed limb

Jeremy has been ill too and we are all heartily sick of all the local takeout options, so last night I pulled out a chopping board and the sunshine-yellow Le Creuset dutch oven that Janny gave us.

The girls were drawn like magnets and clambered around. “Are you cooking?” “You never cook.” I used to. The last time I remember doing it was in Barraba in October of 2013, after we brought Mum back from her radiation treatment in Sydney. We were full of hope that her lingering symptoms were left over from the radiation, and that she would defy the horrible odds against her. I bought potatoes and chicken stock at the IGA. In the kitchen at Henry Street, I peeled the potatoes and blanched them and then sliced them thinly and warmed them in a little melted butter. I drowned them in stock and let them simmer until they were fall-aparty, then used a hand mixer to blend everything into a rich, delicate puree. It’s a Julia Child recipe. It turned out great.

I think Mum managed two spoonfuls of it.

Anyway I am not surprised that Julia especially thinks I do not cook. I diced a white onion and had Julia peel a couple of carrots for me, which I sliced into rounds. I warmed the onions and five chicken thighs in butter. I love butter, don’t judge me. I cut up a couple of preserved lemon wedges and threw them in with some of their briny syrup. I added the carrots and covered everything in a little powdered clove and quite a lot of powdered cinnamon. When the chicken was brown, I threw in the last of a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and a cup or two of water, and stuck the Le Creuset in the oven with the lid on until the house was full of delicious smells.

We ate it over rice. It was awesome. I made a rhubarb compote for dessert, and that was yummy too.

wellspring of compassion, by sonia connolly

Trauma can be shockingly sudden and obvious, or it can be subtle, ongoing, and difficult to name.

Instead of travel, I prefer to think of healing from trauma as growth, like a tree becoming taller and wider and more intricately itself every year.

You are not limited to one physical place like a tree, but you do have only one history. You can reach your roots into different parts of it and change how you perceive your history over time, finding pockets of nourishing compost in both your own and your ancestors’ stories.

Mirror neurons in our brains echo the expressions and body language of the people around us, recreating their emotions in our bodies. Our nervous systems automatically align with nearby nervous systems. This effect is strongest in infants and children and occurs in adults as well, especially sensitive ones. For example, if your mother was often anxious, you may struggle with unquenchable anxiety.

Shame is learned. As infants and small children, we expressed ourselves freely without worrying about what others thought. As we received negative responses from others, we learned to filter our behavior to be more acceptable in their eyes.

We want to banish our fiercest patterns, but we have to learn to live with them instead. When we name and study our experiences, we get clawed less when patterns recur. As they become tamer, we may even come to grudgingly appreciate them.

Bodies are usually delighted to reconnect and do not hold grudges.

ancillary sword, by ann leckie

At the time I had not thought of myself as a slave, but I had been a weapon of conquest

five things for a friday blog

1. I spent most of the week in Chicago, a city I love for no reason other than that J and I once spent a very happy weekend there. The light over the lake and the severely beautiful architecture always bring back how giddy I felt then, gazing at the Chagall stained glass in the Art Institute, laughing because we had both noticed that the lake sounds like the sea but doesn’t smell right.

2. Despite which, I barely slept the two nights I spent in my (stunning, lake-view) hotel room. By the second night, with my throat raw and my dreams shallow and repetitive, I realized I had caught J’s cold, which he in turn picked up from Julia. I sat through a presentation on Thursday morning with cerebrospinal fluid leaking out of my nose. The plane landing in SFO almost made the left side of my face collapse into a neutron star.

3. This morning when Claire made her customary plea to be allowed to stay home from school, for some reason I agreed, and I’m glad I did. By ten she was feverish. It was a gorgeous dry sunny San Francisco spring day, with all the nasturtiums and roses already in bloom, but the loveliness was largely wasted on us. We ventured out only briefly, for coffee and soup and cold medicine. Claire has spent most of the day asleep on the couch, I on my bed, attended by our faithful kitten doctors.

4. I tried several times to expand on my winter soldier post with a description of how 1980s Australian patriarchy worked, but remembering the microaggressions is painful, and trying to convey their emotional weight is difficult. Pinned down in words, they are dry and seem manageable. It is only the accumulation of hundreds and thousands of them over the years that buries and suffocates you in the end.

5. Turns out I would rather remember the micro-non-aggressions, the people who startled me by saying exactly the opposite of what I had come to expect them to say. Gregan saying Well you are a nice person, why wouldn’t I like you. Professor Brown saying You were one of the most highly qualified candidates, we are glad to have you. Alex saying That must have been difficult. Grant, most of all, saying lots of things I still cherish, but mostly just scooping me up into the sunshine of his solar system, showing me a way to be happy that I had never thought of before. Four cheers for non-toxic masculinity.

Moments, too, where I cried because the pain stopped; like the first time I heard Mary Lambert’s “She Keeps Me Warm” and read that Mary is an out lesbian Christian. Well, why not? This one is fresh in my mind because Skud mentioned the other day that she’d met a member of the Sydney Anglican liberal resistance, and I thought, what a glorious thing to be. But then I realized that I was always a member of the resistance, even when I didn’t know it.

I want so many things back that I can’t ever have, not only Mum and Dad but being young again and in a world so full of possibilities (the twilight sky above Dublin such a rich and light-filled blue, Bjork in her own before-time singing “I don’t know my future after this weekend, and I don’t want to.”) Most of all I wish I could have been in less distress so that I could have been kinder and more kickass. But I did make it out alive and here I am, with my cats and my children and my J, our sunny little village in the city, our found family, perspective, time to read and think and make sense of what happened so that maybe one day I can write about it without jumping all over the place like this, without having to glance quickly into it and then just as quickly look away.

the myth of sanity, by martha stout

Underlying the various forms of heartrending pain and diverse complaints with which they come to therapy is the same fundamental question—Shall I choose to die, or shall I choose to live? They come to therapy to help themselves answer that question, and I will get nowhere if I try to answer the question for them, or even delay its consideration. The rest of therapy never begins for a survivor of trauma until that ruthlessly basic question has been answered.

And is there something that makes it okay in the end? Is there something that makes it worth it, being so tired, going through all this?

…viewed in cold objectivity, we are shell-shocked as an entire species.

The goal, put simply, is to enable oneself to live substantially in the present. The task is life-affirming, and also a kind and generous thing to do for the people one loves.

…nothing defines unified personhood so solidly as the courage of strong commitment to personal responsibility.

the winter soldier

So I did a podcast! I can’t bear the sound of my own voice but if you can, you may endure it here. I hasten to add that Sumana and Brendan are delightful and so are their voices. Like most of the people I know, they were bewildered by how completely I succumbed to Captain America fandom last summer, and wished to inquire further.

I’ve complained often, most recently in the context of Pym, about how never I or characters resembling me show up in fiction. This was a feature, not a bug, for many years. Books were windows, not mirrors. But representation is important, and eventually the lack of representation of genderqueer financiers who grew up on mining asteroids started to get to me.

Of course, when I eventually encountered myself in fiction, it was as a traumatized amnesiac supersoldier, so go figure. I mean that literally: I had to go and figure this out. It took me months to unpack why it was Bucky – and not even really MCU Bucky (lovely and brilliant as Seb Stan is) but the Bucky of chapter 2 of part 2 of Feather’s epic novel Your Blue Eyed Boys, Bucky sitting on a roof panicking because something good has happened, because he has made a human connection. (I misremembered in the podcast: this scene takes place after he hooks up with Steve.) What, exactly, about this did I recognize?

The full answer is beyond the scope of this blog but the short answer is trauma. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, a period that future rachaeologists may term my Nightmare Phase, I ran away all the time: I panicked, I fled, I lost my fucking shit. I did not know why. I thought I was just broken. Spoiler! I was, but not innately. I was a product of a society that had no better use for me than to try (and fail) to wipe my personality and shape me into a weapon.

Back then I did not have the names I have now for my child-abusing church or my rape factory of an undergraduate university. I fell for the cover story, which was that Australia was egalitarian and a worker’s paradise. It took me a long time to notice the blindingly fucking obvious, which is that Australia is ruled by cruel and complacent old money undertaking wholesale environmental destruction, and that every institution depends on the unpaid labor if not outright exploitation of women and people of colour.

This is the point at which Liz always likes to jump in and say, that’s not just Australia. Which is true. But my metal arm has the Southern Cross where Bucky’s has just one red star.

Anyway so, I have spent the last nine months or so reading up on why some people (Spoiler! Me.) have crippling anxiety and are hypervigilant and kind of agoraphobic and don’t know when they are hungry or tired or whether things hurt. Trauma is not the defining fact of my life by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a model with explanatory power, like how for example people lying to children about important things makes me feel dead inside.

Still, as Salome always reminds me, mine is a very mild case and even the things that happened to people I love were not the worst things, and have proved to be largely survivable. The only real gift of suffering is compassion, and I hope that the fucked-up things that happened will make me more patient, more empathetic, less apt to judge, more able and willing to listen.

The name winter soldier comes first from Thomas Paine’s These are the times that try men’s souls, and second from the investigations into war crimes in Vietnam, instigated by the veterans themselves. To be a winter soldier is to own the shitty things that you have done and to believe in a better world even when that seems impossible. In this sense, Steve is a winter soldier too. He’s the America I want to believe in: the supersoldier who remembers how it felt to be skinny, the superpower that remembers what it meant to be a colony. I am the mining asteroid and I am the weapon. But that’s not all I am.

five things to force-reboot the blog

1. I don’t know what to tell you about my father. I’m very sad.

2. I took Boo Bear the horse to a show – the same show Gunther and I prevailed at last year. Boo Bear and I did not prevail. He refused many, many times. I was mortified. The next day, with another, much better rider, he was even naughtier and ended up galloping around the ring with no rider and no bridle on. Eventually he remembered that he is lazy and walked over to Toni, asking to be taken home. Shaming as this all was, it makes a significantly funnier story than my uneventful outing with Gunther, and I have been dining out on it ever since.

3. In reflecting on this it occurred to me that Gunther is Gryffindor (bravery, daring, nerve and chivalry) and Boo Bear is Slytherin (ambitious, cunning and resourcefulness.) I ended up putting all the horses I have ever loved into their houses. Bellboy, Alfie, Noah and Rhun: Gryffindors. Bella and Ruah, Slytherin. Roland, Ravenclaw. Dear old Jackson, Hufflepuff.

4. Julia aced her first piano audition and Claire is setting up her Etsy store. I love my nerdy, awesome kids.

5. There is no fifth thing.

horse heaven, by jane smiley

recovering from genocidal trauma, by myra giberovitch

‘Survival is an achievement’

‘Impairment and suffering that follow trauma do not preclude concurrently restorative and successful adjustment’

Appreciating and acknowledging survivors’ abilities, and developing programs from a strengths perspective, helps survivors change their self-perception. It encourages them to talk openly about their wounds, gain insight into how these wounds affect their present lives, and make a decision to heal them. This approach uses the resiliency of the human spirit to recover and heal from the most severe forms of dehumanization and degradation.

‘A sense of control over life and the ability to continue to make decisions, both long and short-term plans, are the best predictors of emotional well-being among older adults’

spirits abroad, by zen cho

Old people should be grateful for affection. The sudden disturbing thought occurred to Vivian that no one had liked Nai Nai very much because she’d never submitted to being looked after.

“Yi Yi,” said Vivian. “She didn’t talk to you because in Nai Nai’s eyes you are perfect already.” As she said this, she realized it was true. Wei Yi — awkward, furious and objectionable in every way — was Nai Nai’s ideal grandchild. There was no need to monitor or reprimand such a perfect heir.

She put her soft hand on Ah Lee’s arm and stroked it. Love came up the arm and melted Ah Lee’s thorny teenaged heart.

the dead do not improve, by jay caspian kang

Adam eventually picked up a variety of drug habits because he thought they would provide a grittier spin on the traditional American Jewish experience. They did not.

Whenever he saw the bay or the Golden Gate Bridge swallowed up in fog, the grim-faced surfers crossing Great Highway on their way out to the shore pound at Ocean Beach, even the valley nerds wobbling along the 1 on their ridiculously efficient bicycles, he felt his hatreds soften, at least a little.

There’s nothing as stifling and infuriating as a well-intentioned, garrulous white man who is trying very hard to introduce you, his unexpected minority associates, in his best, most graceful way.

the internet of thims

While they are equally cute and dear to me, my cat Alice appears in pictures as an inkblot with eyes, whereas my cat Thimble is photogenic as hell. I’m just sayin’.

alviso slough

I get the impression my sister would prefer it if i did not have tragic song lyrics at the top of my blog for weeks at a time. So here are some pictures of Alviso Slough.

I drove over after a work thing to see if looking at a ghost town would have any effect on my profound grief for my father. And it did.

Alviso was a bustling port town until the Bay silted up and the wetlands reclaimed the fishermen’s houses and the cannery. Now ducks nest here, and coots turn upside down in the water, only ten minutes from the Superfund site that is Silicon Valley Ground Zero. It was rush hour, but there was some freakin’ insane birdsong going on.

Places like Alviso, and the Exclusion Zones around Chernobyl and Fukushima, are comforting to me. They remind me that even after everyone I know and all humans and even the mammals and birds are dead and gone, there will still be rocks and water and sky.

black lake, by bjork

Our love was my womb
But our bond has broken
My shield is gone
My protection is taken

My heart is enormous lake
Black with potion
I am blind
Drowning in this ocean

My soul torn apart
My spirit is broken
Into the fabric of all
He is woven

Family was always our sacred mutual mission
Which you abandoned

death and ptaxes

Time continues to pass. Wednesday would’ve been Mum and Dad’s 55th anniversary. Thursday morning, I learned Terry Pratchett had died as I drove myself to the dentist. I bawled my eyes out, and as a result my pain tolerance was too low even for the water pick. My hygienist, Lisa, was super sweet about it. After that I had to meet with my tax accountant.

Being a grownup? Sucks.

It’s Pi Day, by the inexplicable American reckoning. I was kicking myself for not organizing pies – the line at Mission Pie is doubtless out the door, it was last year – when I remembered that we own the means of production! Claire’s hard at work on her Key Lime Pie, and I have the makings of a strawberry/apple and a tarte tatin, when she’s done.

on work, khalil gibran

And what is it to work with love?
It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart,
even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.
It is to build a house with affection,
even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.
It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy,
even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.
It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,
And to know that all the blessed dead
are standing about you and watching.

happy birthday, sarah

I still can’t really write about Dad (although as Mary wonderfully pointed out, he’s been a hero of this blog all along.) So I will write about my sister instead, shown here adoring ponehs.

She and I weren’t especially close growing up, which I get. There are six years between us, I was irksomely hero-worshippy and she had her own complex shit going on. I do still remember a note she wrote me when I was 19 and went to Tasmania for six weeks on an archaeological dig, saying: “I always knew you were going to have great adventures.” When I got accepted to Trinity she gave me a blue plaid Onkaparinga blanket to keep me warm in the Irish winters. It’s still my go-to for snuggling on the couch in San Francisco. I bought another like it to keep me warm in Barraba, and she has it on her bed when I’m not there.

But our timing was sort of perpetually off. Our lives diverged. She was pregnant when I came home from Dublin, and she had her babies while I got my first job, my first apartment and my first car. She moved to Brisbane around the time I moved to San Francisco and our parents set off in their Winnebago to live the nomad life. Our brother Alain shared her house and helped raise her kids while our brother Iain and I made the annual schlep to Burning Man.

When Mum and Dad settled in Barraba, Sarah packed up her whole family and moved there, with the tacit understanding that she would become their caregiver as they aged. Dad was diagnosed in January of 2013; Mum in August of 2013; Mum died in February 2014 and Dad, of course, four weeks ago. It’s been a brutal couple of years for all of us, but the burden fell disproportionately on her. She and I reverted, hard, to stereotype. I was the out-of-town career woman who flew in to deal with bureaucracy and demand answers from doctors. She was the one who dealt with everything else, day after day after long, crushing day.

She did it with such patience and strength, I can’t even tell you. Sarah was Mum’s best friend and constant companion. She maintained Dad safely in his home and independent long after anyone else thought it was possible to do so. Small wonder that even when he had forgotten the rest of us, Dad’s eyes still lit up whenever she walked into the room. It was her stubborn advocacy that earned them both a merciful death in palliative care with their pain humanely managed. Sarah alone was with both our parents when they took their last breaths.

I couldn’t have done it. I am awed by her unstinting love and grace throughout. Fortunately there are compensatory upsides to going through Hell side by side with another person. I was on the phone the other day laughing my head off, and afterwards Jeremy said: “Was that your sister? I thought you were talking to Salome.” Funnily enough I had said to Salome a few days earlier: “I used to call her because she was my sister. Now I call her because I want to talk to her.” And then I started to cry, but from happiness for a change (as well as because I cry at the drop of a hat these days.) It has all been a fucking ordeal, but Sarah has been magnificent. I’m so proud of her and grateful to know her.

And, as it happens, she is turning 50 today. Why don’t you all go do something awesome that she would do: tolerate a pesky little sibling, lift some weights, swim a kilometre, snorgle a kitteh, devour a book, teach a child to read, manage an art festival, play the ukulele, be an amazing friend, donate to cancer or dementia research. As for me I will raise a glass to the greatest woman I know. Happy birthday, Sarah.

another roadside attraction

We first saw the Old Faithful geyser in January 2008, and I’d always wanted to relive that happy day. Most do-overs are anticlimactic, but this one wasn’t.

The geyser geysed.

Such geysing!

“Everybody smile! Milo, leave your brother alone.”

Then we visited the Petrified Forest and saw this majestic California oak springing from the fossilized remains of its ancestor. Plus a bunch of trees.

I wheedled our way into the hot springs but my phone was out of juice, so you’ll have to take my word for it that they were even warmer and more jewel-like and delightful than I remembered.

Nearly forgot the best part. The sun set and Venus and Mars shone by a Cheshire moon. Salome and I discussed the physics of such a moon until it set, orange, behind Coit Tower.  I said: “City’s always beautiful, but that was… Unf.” Salome said: “I arranged it all specially for your birthday.”


photo by Jules Ellingson

44

Here’s what I wrote when I turned 35:

I called Mum and said “Congratulations! I’m AWESOME!”

Only one tiny thing is needed to complete my happiness: a Swedish Warmblood mare, six years old, 16.2hh, bright bay with a white blaze and four white stockings, a trot that levitates, a huge jump and a kind and willing disposition.

Here’s me at lunchtime today:

He’s far from six and he’s no mare. And I sure do miss my mother, not to mention my Dad. But despite everything, it’s been a pretty okay birthday so far.

men we reaped, by jesmyn ward

I think my love for books sprang from my need to escape the world I was born into, to slide into another where words were straightforward and honest, where there was clearly delineated good and evil, where I found girls who were strong and smart and creative and foolish enough to fight dragons, to run away from home to live in museums, to become child spies, to make new friends and build secret gardens. Perhaps it was easier for me to navigate that world than my home

Perhaps it was easier for me to sink into those worlds than to navigate a world that would not explain anything to me, where I could not delineate good and bad

How the privilege of my education, my eventual ascent into another class, was born in the inexorable push of my mother’s hands. How unfair it all seemed.

After I left New York, I found the adage about time healing all wounds to be false: grief doesn’t fade. Grief scabs over like my scars and pulls into new, painful configurations as it knits. It hurts in new ways. We are never free from grief.