Sunday, January 12, 2020

LOOKING BACK

I haven't visited this page for a very long time. I have been busy with other kinds of writing. I was doing an online course which took up a lot of time. I also went back to a novel I started a few years ago when I belonged to Paul Mason's writing group. This novel was to be a response to  a prompt Paul had given us. He read us a piece in three parts each in first person but each in a different voice. While part of the group, I wrote the first part of my story, which was set in the seventies, in the time of the first wave of student protests. The second part was to be set in the eighties and the third in the nineties. Coming back to it, I am struggling with the second part and actually considering making it the third and final part. It is taking shape,but very slowly.

Working on a story set in the last century  has made me revisit my own past, the kind of life we lived then, the conditions in which we lived and the emotions and attitudes belonging to that time which can now be considered historical.  Now in my eighties, and turning a critical eye on my younger self, I am surprised to find that I have to revise my opinions on a number of matters.

Firstly, my self-image. Already in the previous piece I about living with mental illness, I am in the process of changing my opinion of how I coped with that particular problem. I have always been filled with regret that I had not been able to help my daughter more. I felt guilty too. I accused myself of being impatient, of often losing my temper of not making more of an effort to understand her, Looking back, I am actually surprised at how well I coped. Instead of seeing my inadequacy, I am appalled at the inadequacy of the Health Services.  All a patient gets is a monthly injection and a packet of pills and the rest is up to the long-suffering family. So, now I no longer  think of myself as weak but as actually rather strong, battling bravely on my own with almost no help in an almost impossible situation.

Another idea about myself that I have had to revise is my estimate of my mental capacity, I have always taken for granted that I was born with a high IQ. I had such a highly intellectual family so  I thought I should be as gifted as the rest of them. Lately IQ tests appear regularly on Facebook. I have taken one or two and found them rather challenging. This makes me wonder if my brainfar from being  exceptionally bright, is actually very average after all.  Not that I take Facebook  tests like this seriously,( I find them so boring that I seldom finish the) but I have felt in the past that I was inclined to under-perform and have sometimes been disappointed in myself. Perhaps there was no need for disappointment. Perhaps I am just not able to do any better. One might think that this would be a blow to my self-esteem, but in fact it is quite a relief. I can lower my expectations. I don't have to go on trying so hard any more.

A third consideration is my poor memory. Living in an old age complex, forgetfulness is something of  general concern. We are all afraid of the bogie Dementia and are constantly aware of lapses in our ability to recall names and faces. Now I make allowance for such lapses. Knowing that I may forget to go to them, I now write the dates of every appointment in my diary. I am amazed to discover that in old age I am more reliable at turning up to events than I have ever been. This makes me wonder if I always had a memory problem. None of my  school-mates used to get into trouble for bringing the wrong books or doing the wrong homework the way I constantly did. I was always writing out lines or staying in after school because of something I had forgotten to do. My memory for book-learning was normal, even above average. I can still recite most of the poems in my school poetry books and even today, I can tell you the capital cities and chief exports of dozens of countries, but it was the things I was supposed to do that I forgot. A poor memory for faces is a recognised disabling condition known as prosopagnosia,.Could I suffer from something similar. No doubt this condition has a  genetic cause. My father was famously absent-minded too.
 

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Mental Illness in the family

I have just been reading Enumerations by Maire Fisher,  an excellent  book about a boy with OCD. It gives a clear and informative insight into how it must feel to be a sufferer of this condition. It also gives a graphic account of the devastating effect on the boy's family. 'Yes," I thought, "It must be so hard for parents to come to terms with a mental illness like that." Then I thought again. "But I  had to live for years with mental illness in my family. Not only Alcoholism, which was bad enough, but Schizophrenia as well. Those parents I was feeling so sorry for had it easy in comparison. They felt lonely in their affliction. The school wasn't much help to them and their friends were inclined to be judgmental and blame them for their son's condition.  I had experienced the same reactions, but the mother and father in the book had sympathetic psychiatrists and health-care workers to assist and encourage them. It was only after several years of coping on our own that we were able to get treatment for the mentally ill family member. Looking back and comparing myself to the mother in the book, who seemed to be falling apart under the strain, I am filled with admiration for the woman I was then. There I was, holding down a full- time job, running a household which included a preschooler grandson and three girls going though the  problems and traumas typical of teenage girls,  and at the same time coping with an alcoholic and a schizophrenic and getting no professional help from anyone  I was a bloody marvel! How on earth did I manage? 

My present GP asked me when I  first consulted him for my shortness of breath, whether I was not very sorry that I had smoked cigarettes. He was surprised when I said," No." 'I explained that  I am sure that at many occasions in my life I would have had a complete break-down of some kind or another if I hadn't had the calming effect of nicotine to help me. And then of course, there was my faith. It was the Lord's love and guidance  more than anything else that got me through the hard times.

[In later years, my daughter was correctly diagnosed and put on medication, the other girls became  more understanding and became a great support to me. Then my husband stopped drinking and life took a turn for the better.]

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

GENERATION GAP

My friend June wanted me to go with her to go to an editing course. I thought my short story collection could do with editing and just might, if improved, become fit for publication, so I went along. Dawn Garish, who is a dear friend, is running the course.  Now, she is very much into using writing, especially, memoir writing, as therapy. This is not really what June and I are after. So far we have attended two sessions and I  think we both found them disappointing. However, I did take note of some comments made about my pieces and changed them, very possibly for the better. So it hasn't been a fruitless exercise by any means. At the second session, one of the participants read us the piece of writing that she had  revised as had been suggested and it was very much improved. So she certainly benefited. But I can't help contrasting this course with other courses I have attended. I think particularly of Sindiwe's writing courses and also of Finuala's workshops. I did find one of her comments on my poem about ICU useful, but really when it comes to poetry, Dawn just doesn't have it.

I was in two minds about continuing with the course. Thinking it over and  analysing my feelings, I have come to the conclusion that I am out of place in the group. My work may be light, even frivolous, but I am serious about writing. I love what I consider "good writing" and am very critical of anything else. In other words I am a literary snob. If I were to give my honest opinion of  most of what has been read at this group, it would would just be hurtful and offensive and not help at all. The style of writing most of the participants admire and probably aspire to is popular and may well turn out to be publishable. This goes for the subject matter too. A lot of it is about unhappy childhood, which so many writers seem to have experienced. I do not easily relate to this.(I also think it has been rather done to death, but maybe that is just me.)

After careful consideration, I realise that the main problem is that I am too old for this group. Two of the members are approaching my age and they write  stories that I can enjoy. I can't say the same for the other three. One piece, involving child abuse, that was read at the last session, I thought was quite revolting.  I found bile rising in my throat. It actually turned my stomach.The other members of the group obviously did not feel the same way. Dawn did say that there was perhaps too much graphic detail, but in general the writer was told she was honest and wrote well. I did not agree! If it had been a description of her own experience of abuse, it would have been bad enough but would have aroused sympathy. It wasn't! She admitted that it was entirely fictitious and in fact, listening to it, one of the things that struck me was that it did not ring true. The voice, supposedly that of a nine or ten year old, sounded much too adult. I am probably too squeamish, but the writer seemed to enjoy  wallowing in  disgusting detail. I could not keep quiet. I had to say that I found the piece too disturbing and did not want to listen to it.

I understand now that for this group I am on the wrong side of a generation gap. Perhaps, growing up in the puritanical fifties I am  too prudish. I do not share what seems to me to be an a strange fascination with guts, genitals and bodily fluids. I admire the clear, spare writing of the authors I grew up with and don't like the fluffy pretentious style of much of what is published today. I think I shall go to only one more session and before it, or after it, explain my problem to Dawn.




  

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

These are two long words for "Gay or Straight?" and "do you think of yourself as male or female?" ?" At church today we were told that these questions are of great interest to the Powers that be in the diocese and are to be the focus of debate. I am not sure quite what this means, but assume we shall be called to meet  and discuss our attitudes to LGTB people.

After hearing Father Stafford's sermon, someone in the congregation suggested to me that I might be interested to meet some gay friends of hers. I didn't want to be discouraging, but I couldn't see much point in such a meeting. I have friends who go in for in dog training, bird- watching,creative writing or poetry. They are my friends because of our shared interests and because they are people I like. Some of these friends are gay. It is just something I accept about them like the colour of their eyes. When I was young my parents numbered several same-sex couples among their friends. So I was aware of differences in sexual orientation from a very early age.

However, I am aware that gay people are often subject to prejudice and discrimination and I am willing to join in any discussions that may be instigated by Father Stafford. To this end I decided to look up the subject on Google. I battled my way through some rather heavy scientific articles and came up with some most interesting nuggets of information.

Firstly it seems that our gender identity and sexual orientation are an integral part of who we are. They are both permanently programmed in the brain while we are in the womb. In other words we are born that way.  There is no evidence that the way we are brought up or our social environment  can influence our gender identity or sexual orientation.

At conception we receive either two X chromosomes or one X and one Y chromosome. The embryo with a Y chromosome will develop male organs and male physical characteristics and the  one with two X chromosomes will develop female sex organs and female physical characteristics.But the story doesn't end there. Hormones are produced in the mother's body which have an effect on the baby's growth. The amount of testosterone during the development of the foetus determines the sexual differentiation of the brain; a testosterone surge causes the brain to become more masculine, a lack of testosterone causes it to become more feminine. So a baby may be born with the body of a boy and the mind of a girl or vice versa.

It has been found that female animals that have been affected by high testosterone behave like males and choose other females as mates and male animals lacking testoterone before birth behave like females.

So nobody chooses to be gay.  Being born that way is  challenging, It is harder for them to  accept themselves, find their place in the world and to find love.  Those of us who were born "straight" are challenged too. Our challenge is to find ways of being more accepting and inclusive of those who are different from ourselves.

Monday, October 1, 2018

A problem with prayer


The Bible reading in church on Sunday was from the Epistle of James. In it he encourages anyone who is ill to inform the church elders so prayers can be said. I was not feeling well enough for Church on Sunday and had to tell a friend who rang in the morning, that I couldn’t give her a lift. She obviously took James seriously and when she got to church  asked the congregation for prayers for my recovery. Unfortunately, this caused a certain amount of consternation because when you are prayed for like this, everyone imagines you are, if not actually on the point of death, at least seriously indisposed. 

My neighbour,  Liz, from two doors away, was at church that morning and heard the prayers. Shocked and concerned , she popped in to see how I was. At that time I was still  groggy and could only sip at the  bush tea she brought me. However, it seems the prayers of All Saints Church are very powerful and by evening I was almost fully recovered. In fact, having not eaten all day, I was rather hungry and so when Val, my next-door neighbour,  rang and invited me to join her in a light meal I  left everything at once  and walked over to her cottage. As I didn’t intend to stay away long, and was going to be so close by, I left the computer on and the door unlocked ( Actually, I never lock my dogs in the house so in case there is a an emergency like a fire  they would be able to escape.)

While I was enjoying a glass of red and a delicious bean bredie,  my almost- next-door-neighbour, Liz , came round again  to see if I was still in the land of the living. She was horrified to find the state of my home. It was  reminiscent of the Marie Celeste: door open, lights on, computer running ,  dogs hiding in the bedroom and the occupant mysteriously missing.. What could have happened? It was already dark. Perhaps I had suddenly had another attack of illness and gone to find help. Perhaps I had gone outside and collapsed and was lying unconscious somewhere. . She consulted her husband, who was on the Residents committee. He agreed something should be done. Security was informed, nurses were called, the supervisor was phoned, all the  staff alerted. Everyone went into action: the house was searched and the grounds scoured, but although I was only a few metres away I was not to be found. Just before Management was about to go to the lengths of informing my next-of-kin, Liz came to check my cottage again, encountered me  getting ready for bed and the search was called off.

I was most touched by the concern shown by friends and by staff, but now, to prevent a similar happening, I have given my cell-phone  number to Security to keep in the office at the gate and I have also given it to as many people I can think of, so I can be located when next I go missing

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Anthony Beale


FAMILY STORY

If I should need to write a novel in a hurry
It would have to be about my ancestor,
Captain Anthony Beale, adventurer and rogue,
slaver, seaman, pioneer. He was
an officer,  but not a gentleman.
The BEIC sent him to St Helena island
soon after it was colonised, his task,
to subdue the rabble that had collected there.
Other governors had failed, but Beale
no stranger to the lash, soon
whipped the ruffians into shape.
There weren’t too many of them anyway.

But then the Dutch attacked,
He tried to chase them off
by rolling rocks down on them from the heights.
The Dutch retreated but returned in force.
He thought it best to flee. He took a ship,
went to Brazil, hired a sloop and set out
to warn all British ships that St Helena
had been captured by the Dutch.
By chance he met some naval ships,
and with their help reclaimed the island for the Crown.
The Company were not amused. They cut his salary;
 demoted him from Governor to storeman.
He took this opportunity to cook the books,
got caught and got the sack,
Now Beale was forced to till the soil and
sell his house, ( I’m sure
it wasn’t  at a loss.)

It wasn’t long before this little isle,
in mid-Atlantic was again the scene
of strife and battle.  Some malcontents,
Beale among them, started an insurrection.
The rebellion was soon put down,
the instigators executed, most of them.
but Beale, although condemned to death,
 contrived to talk his way into a milder sentence,
Instead of being hanged, he would be exiled.
He was never to go back to England.
And that is how our family came to be
settlers and have remained settlers to this day.

(As for Anthony, he came to a sticky end,
poisoned by one of his slaves,
an early victim of  decolonisation.)

This is a not very successful attempt to write a poem about my ancestor Anthony Beale. I found his story in  an account of the  history of St Helena. All the happenings in the early years were meticulously recorded in the records kept by the BEIC. Re-reading the account of the events and writing the poem made me wonder how much it might have affected the history of South Africa, if Anthony Beale had not chanced to meet that British Naval vessel when he was trying to warn ships not to stop at St Helena while he was on his way back to England.

At that time the Dutch East India Company were not very happy with the station they had established at Table Bay. They had found that the harbour was not at all safe. The weather was inclined to be very stormy. There was always the danger of shipwreck when rounding the Cape. The indigenous population were unfriendly; livestock was always being stolen and then fighting would break out.  That is why an expedition was sent to St Helena. The intention was to drive the British out and establish an alternative station there.  Perhaps they even intended to move Van Riebeeck and co.to St Helena. After successfully capturing the island the Dutch force returned to the Cape leaving just a weakened garrison to defend it. They didn't expect to lose it again so soon.  If  the Dutch had established themselves there, it would have had a profound effect on the BEIC. They might have been squeezed out of the Spice trade and lost much of their wealth. It would have had an even more profound effect on development of the Cape Colony. Fewer Dutch ships would have stopped there.  The settlement might have been abandoned. It would certainly not have grown the way it did. The Portuguese might even have taken over in the Cape.

In school, we learnt all about Simon van der Stel, Ryk Tulbagh,Wolrade Woltemade and so on, but nobody is ever taught about Anthony Beale and the naval captain who chased off the Dutch and recaptured St Helena.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Seeing the past differently

Last night I was suffering from a bout of insomnia.  Lying awake, I started to muse on the past. I had been reading a book about a woman teaching young college students and how she became involved in their development towards maturity and independence, This made me think of  the time when I was the same age as those students. I remembered, particularly, the year when I lived in a  flat with three friends I knew from University.  How I looked up to the other girls!  They seemed  so  sophisticated and confident, especially two of them, Shirley and Erica, who were close friends and had known each other from schooldays. They always seemed to know exactly how they wanted everything to be. They always knew what was the latest trend in books, films or pop music. Their clothes were always stylish. The two of them together set the tone and took the lead. They made the rules about meals, shopping, shared expenses,who was invited to our flat etc. etc. The other girl and I simply did what they wanted. Looking back I see that I was treated rather like a younger sibling, someone not quite competent. I wasn't bullied exactly, but my wishes and opinions were not much taken into account.

Now, so many years later, I suddenly perceive the four of us in a different way. I think of the behaviour of the other girls and see them as bossy and self-centred rather than clever and confident, somewhat immature, not particularly so for their age, but certainly more so than I. After leaving University I had found a job, so  I was the only one earning my own living. Though I could always depend on my parents to help me if necessary,  I was, already, almost financially independent. The others were still completing their studies and had well-off parents who paid  all their expenses, I had always had holiday jobs and while studying, did part-time tutoring for pocket money.  I was the one in a stable relationship, was contemplating marriage and was more sexually experienced. I  also came from a very literary family and was better informed and better read than most of my contemporaries. Now looking back I can't understand why I felt at all inferior. I see myself now as the  more grown-up one and the other girls as less mature. How interesting to find that the past is not fixed and that although our memories may not change in themselves they can take on  quite different aspects when we revisit them in old age.