Archive for May, 2015


My poor sister must be so sick of giving me news she knows is going to ruin my day, week, month, but God knows it’s better than finding out from someone else. Milton had a heart attack on Friday. He collapsed at home and his wife Nic revived him, but he died before the ambulance got to the hospital.

I don’t remember meeting him; our friendship was of such long standing that the bulk of it pre-dates this blog. He was in kindergarten with my older brother, and I was in kindergarten with his younger brother and the kid who would become his stepbrother. In our teens his family washed up at the same church as mine for whatever reason. He was a youth leader there, although in retrospect it’s obvious he already had one foot out the door. He and his brother were blond, blue-eyed, square-jawed Australians who would have been almost boringly conventionally attractive if not for their obvious intelligence and the anarchic gleam of mischief in their eyes. (Also they were both short-arses, barely taller than me.)

He was the first of our little cohort to travel, and he did it properly: to Europe and Asia for more than a year, so that his name had become something of a legend by the time he showed up at church again, brown and glowing with a huge grin on his face. Other people glazed over at his stories (memorable quote from someone else at the time: “Why would anyone want to travel? God’s love is the same everywhere.”) But I wanted to see every photo, hear every anecdote. In retrospect it’s obvious I already had one foot out the door. It must have been around then that he started treating me as a pesky little sister and I him as another all-knowing big brother. We all had nicknames then: his was Stilt Man, maybe because of his height? (Mine was PL, short for Poor Little Rachel, baby sister to Big Sar, Big Man and Big Al.)

Travel became his focus for a while. He was working at the student travel agency in the Wentworth Building at Sydney Uni when he sold me my flight to Dublin in 1993. He was not long back from LA, where he’d gotten caught up in the riots. It sobered him a little: “I’m falling in love with Sydney all over again,” he said, and for months afterwards I looked at our hometown with new, more respectful eyes. He parlayed his travel agency experience into early Web jobs and we overlapped in San Francisco during the dot com boom. He had an apartment in North Beach and rode his bike over the Golden Gate Bridge to his job in Sausalito. Gotta hand it to him, the man had panache.

After he moved back, we met up at Petit Creme in Sydney a time or two on my visits home. He worked as an information architect at IBM, and he and his girlfriend adopted a Pharaoh Hound. But I didn’t do a good job of staying in touch. I knew vaguely that he’d broken up with that girlfriend and married Nic, another old acquaintance. It turns out that when you leave home you make the unconscious assumption you’ll come back one day to share your war stories with your comrades. It turns out that in fact, they might not always be there.

I didn’t always like him but it turns out that he was family, he was one of mine. And now he’s gone. I think of Nic, a new-made widow. I think of his kids in ten or twenty years, seeking out his friends to try and find out what kind of man he was. Most of all I think of Milton, and in my mind he is about twenty, having a bloody good time at the beach, wearing a green sarong he’d picked up in Bali, of course, with that self-satisfied smirk and his blue eyes dancing with laughter.

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.