Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Corsets and Right Angles, Elisabeth's Blog

My hope was to write a blog that spun off one of Elisabeth's entries (I should have a reference to her blog here, shame for not remembering the correct title of it. It's not enough to just give her name. How will you find her in Australia?) about corsets (by which she meant the outline, something I've never been able to consider, much less make notes about) and a right angle (which has been invaluable, literally, for helping students trim photographs (that might be uneven because the very expensive four-blade easels that they used to hold the photo paper in place were out of alignment) before mounting them. The blog also referred to her thesis, "life writing and the desire for revenge," shame, trauma, rage. 
     (And actually, I'm quite sure she was writing about the T-square that her father made. I've handily transformed it into a right angle.)

Life writing. 
I have not only been consumed by life writing, but obsessive about life photographing. And my reasons for the writing were, undoubtedly, though not often acknowledged, the attempt to scrub out shame and speak about trauma. (The possibility for rage was dampened so long ago that it would take an additional forty years of therapy to find it and I just don' t have that kind of time.) Since no one was noticing what was happening to me when I was a teenager,  I'd like to alert them about all the ways that they didn't protect me and how I fell into harms way as a consequence. The fact that everyone is dead or too old to care about what my problems and experiences were doesn't dampen this urge. I don't even bother fooling myself that I am involved with memoir writing in the name of others who have experienced trauma, neglect, who have grown up in alcoholic homes, though I'm so aware of how many of us there are, having been comforted by Alanon meetings where I hear stories (without having to fix, help, aid or advise anyone,) that comfort me with familiarity, (in a way I was never in therapy) into understanding how deep early deprivations and confusions run, how long they last.  

     My father displayed anger by putting a knife down on a plate in a way that was audible. 
     He had easily skipped a grade or two in the one-room school house, graduated from Miami College or is it University? in Oxford, Ohio, and went on to get his PhD in math at the University of Chicago. Later on, after he married my mother, he would find the academic setting so competitive, that he settled into working at the International Statical Bureau until late in his life when his third wife convinced him that he should teach again, coaxed him into writing a text book on probablities and they became landed immigrants in Nova Scotia so that he could teach advanced students at Dalhousie in Halifax.
     I've always had the insidious idea that having a PhD would  help assuage my deeply ingrained sense that I'm not educated. But my first and only choice of college was of a free-form school where I could follow my vague inclinations without imposition of stern requirements. I hated requirements. Math? I failed high school algebra. A science course? History? Social Sciences? 
     Bard allowed me to skip all that as did the Goddard Adult Degree Program where I eventually, at least, got a college degree for my year and a half of two-weeks in residence and six months of vague work (writing the memoir, taking photographs of my daughter, learning the technical aspects of photography.)   
     I suppose that we're all given a list of weak areas, of nagging possibilities, and gifts along with deficits, and somehow pick and chose which we will concentrate on as we wend our way along. Had I been willing to attend a conventional university, I would have honed different skills. But nothing in the six years after my mother died set me up for making that decision when I was a teenager. So, I live with the nagging consequences, working around them, but also haunted by the deficits. I applaud Elisabeth for being the first female in what sounds like a large family of academic brothers to get a PhD. To have taken up the challenge. And to enjoy poking around in such a marvelous topic! 

     It's hard for me to recognize what I might be capable of organizing. (Though I'm quite good at taking people to appointments with doctors and making notes about what they're too frightened to understand.) I think I let the chaos build around me so that it supports this deep-seated belief that being disorganized, not able to easily find the most elegant way of completing a task, is a major fault. 
    After my father, who was completely inept at intuiting the wiles and deceptions of humans, had created great chaos in (our) lives, quit his job at ISB and started a business advising Japanese businessmen about the new acrylic fibers, I helped him collate the handbook he'd written, pages spread on table surfaces so that we just walked around, collecting them, one after another, in order, efficiently, without wasting motion or time. I thought of that this summer when I was scrubbing water buckets, how it took me weeks to notice that putting flat side of the bucket against the wall by the water spigot would be something my father would have done the first instant he was charged with the task. He thought about/understood space, tangible objects, mathematical concepts, about order, about precision and logic. 
     But so did Harry, a sixty-two-year-old trainer who grew up on a farm down south and probably never finished high school. He used economical ways of lifting, hauling, scrubbing, washing, moving and riding. It was always a pleasure to watch him, as it was to watch Boogie, a groom as old as Harry, who conveyed a zen-like state when he rolled leg wraps and brushed fleece. 
     (Growing up with a precise, abstracted alcoholic certainly did teach this person to stay alert for clues about the precarious choices adults made.)

     I'm far gone in the free-floating way of thinking. I follow a vague thought, allowing tangents to take over, to see what happens. I call this process, a good term to hide a multitude of inabilities and sins. Trying to use Elisabeth's clear-headed blog as a template was a mistake. It would have been better, actually, had I chosen one or two words and chewed at them. Then, on another day, taken up a few more. I bit off more than I could swallow and it wasn't as much fun as rattling around. I was comparing my writing to hers, as I went along.............   Oh, what a trap........

     Aren't we human animals interesting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!   Thanks, Elisabeth.


  1. I'm pleased that my post on corsets and right angles should have inspired you to write your own thoughts about the importance of your father, Melissa. At least that's how I read it here.

    I don't think my blog is any more clear headed than yours.

    It's funny how much we read our own writing as fuzzy and illogical and then others read a different logic into it that we ourselves cannot see. It's part of the joy and pain of losing yourself in your writing, I suppose. And as ever you've done it beautifully here.

    Thanks, Melissa for this thought provoking and evocative post.

  2. no, no, no, no, no, thank you, Elisabeth....