Friday, December 29, 2006

Ten Minutes a Day

The Big Dude and I have started something new.

It's very simple. About an hour after I get home from work and the Little Dude has gone to bed, we dedicate ten minutes every evening to talking to each other in a focused way, with the TV, computer, etc off. It can be about anything - how our day was, what we are thinking or feeling, or even just logistical things we need to plan together that week.

I got this idea from my parents' attendance at Marriage Encounter weekend more than two decades ago. Their marriage was going through a particularly bad patch, they went on this encounter weekend and, although I was only ten years old at the time, even I noticed that things did improve quite dramatically for some years. One of the rituals they were supposed to follow after the program was this ten minutes a day.

I think it is helping. As you may know, my Big Dude is the strong and silent type. He is not a great talker. Through our ten minutes, it feels like we are forming a good habit of checking in with each other. In fact, we usually talk for quite a bit more than ten minutes, until the conversation just reaches a natural end.

In the short term, it seems to be helping. In the longer term, well, I am hoping that this will create a window for other conversations to happen when the time is right.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006


Until a few days ago, I wasn't feeling very Christmassy. I was preoccupied with practical details like checking all the presents were bought, arrangements for lunch and making sure our removalists etc were ready for our move to the new house.

But I did gradually get into it. FTN's Christmas post touched my heart a little bit, with its image of the Christ child being born into the shit of this world.

The sermon and the singing at the church I went to was also surprisingly moving. This was probably helped by the fact that the sermon was given by a frank-talking woman about my age who felt free to give the patriarchy a serve from the pulpit (not her main message, but still, she had guts, I thought). I was impressed that the church seemed very focused on doing practical good in the local community - helping people to rebuild a house burnt down by fire, buying presents for young teenagers whose parents couldn't afford them, running playgroups, including playgroups for single dads. I was also quite impressed that they ran a "blue Christmas" service for people who had experienced loss or sadness during the year and were not feeling very joyful. That shows quite a lot of sensitivity to how difficult Christmas can be for some people.

As you know, I have kind of a bleak view of churches, but possibly, just possibly, I might go again to this one. After all, if I am not willing to go to a church like this, then I will have to acknowledge that I am not even willing to give them a chance.

I thought a lot about the friends I visited and our children and my friend's pregnancy. I dwelt more and more of the image of the Christ child.

I started to feel... grateful. Grateful for blessings received.

But you know who I am really, truly, bottom-line grateful to?

Our sperm donor.

I thought about him quite a lot this Christmas. There are small mysteries about our Little Dude. While he looks very much like me, there is that X factor that is from someone else - he has that particular coppery highlight to his hair, those long, long eyelashes. Things that don't come from my family. These things remind me that he has a donor.

When I was younger, I would probably have thought that sperm donors were your careless young medical students, probably rampaging around drunkenly after a night on the town and making an impulsive decision to add to their beer money through a quick one off the wrist. Money for jam, right?

In fact, in Australia, the process of donating is quite gruelling and donors are not paid. They receive a small amount for expenses but, given the inconvenience of the process, including time spent being tested, attending the compulsory counselling session, filling out a comprehensive medical history and attempting to masturbate successfully into a little cup in an uncomfortably clinical room (not as easy as we might think), there is no way that they are fully reimbursed.

And then, there is the psychological issue of being a donor - knowing that, somewhere, you have children that you may never see, wondering if they might contact you one day, thinking about what kind of relationship (if any) you may be willing to have with them, dealing with any impact of the decision to donate on your own family life in the future, dealing with the risk that ever-improving genetic screening techology and frequently-changing laws on donor anonymity will make your "anonymous" donation no longer anonymous. All of these issues are creating a great shortage of donor sperm in Australia.

I would never dispute that sperm donors have a mix of personal reasons for donating. But, whatever our donor's reasons were, the process itself and the lack of serious financial reward suggest that at least one of those reasons had to be just plain generosity and altruism.

And by doing all of that, our donor made it possible for me to have the gift of my Little Dude. He basically gave me the gift of a child, which is the most precious gift that anyone could ever have given me. The one thing I truly wanted for my own life and an answer to the terrible fear that I would not be able to.

There is something so moving about the idea that a stranger, someone who never even met me, would be willing to do that for me.

I am truly grateful to that man. I will always think of him with gratitude for the gift of my Beautiful Boy. Wherever he goes, whatever he does with the rest of his life, nothing will undo the good that he has done in our lives. There will always be one family here on this planet, wishing him well and regarding him as our good angel.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Happy Thoughts

I am thinking happy thoughts about all the good things that happened on our holiday:

  • We got to stay at a beautiful lake house on a lovely, lazy holiday for free - I spent a lot of time looking out on that peaceful lake and just chilling out

  • We were finally able to spend some good time with the friend whose family owns that house. We were holidaying with this friend two years ago when I found out that my first IVF cycle had been successful. Then she got pregnant just after me, but we missed all the excitement of her baby Jack's arrival because she went to live overseas.

  • My Little Dude can be quite ambivalent about other kids. He enjoys watching other children but doesn't really like to play with them, yet. But he and young Jack seemed to hit it off immediately. Jack is a most beautiful child - the product of his unusually pale, blonde mother and his black-haired Asian father, he is a golden-skinned, delicate-featured little boy with huge, dark, mischievous eyes. The two little boys, one so fair-skinned and the other so golden, spent all their time laughing and playing and getting into mischief - climbing on the furniture, trying to re-program the DVD player, digging into the rubbish bin, etc. Despite the nuisance factor of trying to protect them from themselves, they were utterly delightful to watch.

  • I drank quite a lot of delicious wine from the wineries. Obviously, I can always drink wine at home, but it is quite a different experience to drink it while eating a wonderful lunch at the winery itself, feeling the soil it comes from beneath your toes. The last time I was there, I had just finished an unsuccessful fertility cycle. This time, I could sip my wine while watching my boy capering around and chasing lizards.

  • We visited a cheese factory in a region famous for its cheeses. It was truly a taste sensation. It immediately became quite clear that I had never really tasted cheese before. What I have been eating all my life is apparently cardboard masquerading as cheese. I will not be making that mistake again!

  • We had several visits with John and Sophie from my intentional community, including leisurely catch-ups while our kids were sleeping and a final, lovely dinner where we celebrated them becoming our Little Dude's godparents. Our lives have changed so much since we were all young, single students, but our relationship is stronger than ever.

  • I swam in the ocean baths. I have always loved the beach and the ocean, but my pleasure in swimming in the sea is a bit undermined by my paranoia about sharks. So the fact that there is a safe area where I can enjoy my swim out in the sun and fresh air, looking up at the blue, blue sky, well, whoever had that idea deserves my gratitude. And my Little Dude enjoyed his first real visit to the beach, too, although he was more interested in stuffing his little mouth with seashells than in swimming.

  • While I was there, one of my oldest friends rang to let me know she is pregnant. She has been trying for a long time and lost a pregnancy in its very early stages this year. I really feared for her, that she would miss out on having a baby. I knew she would find that prospect devastating. But now she is pregnant again. And I am so, so happy for her.

And now my Little Dude is moving on to his next big thing: talking. He has been saying mum-mum and dad-dad for months, but nothing else except for the continual chatter they call jargoning - when they chat away in a very conversational tone but it sounds as though they are speaking a foreign language.

But the Little Dude is finally learning to speak English. A few weeks ago, he waved and suddenly said "bye-bye" when his grandmother was leaving after a visit. And on Christmas morning, when I was blowing bubbles at him (one of his favourite games), he said "bubble" very distinctly. And he has repeated these incredible feats several times since.

Obviously, I am just joking about the incredible feats. But there is something so fascinating in watching a baby become a child. It should be ordinary, it shouldn't be so exciting, but for some reason it is like watching a living, breathing miracle. And to have the opportunity to love that child, to help him grow and develop, to give him the very best I can give, well, that is a joy beyond words.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Making the First Move

While I was on holiday, in honour of the Christmas season, I made an attempt to do something about my ongoing spiritual crisis.

I sat on the verandah of the lake house and prayed, sort of, for the first time in a long time. I said:

God, if you exist and you love me, I am here and I open my heart to you.

That was about it. I found that I really didn't have anything else to say.

Then we asked my friends from my old intentional community (John and Sapphira, one a Catholic and one a Quaker) to be my Little Dude's godparents. I have a lot of confidence in them that they can exercise a positive spiritual influence on my boy, and even on me, without trying to fill his head with crap.

And this Christmas, I will make an effort to go to church and to listen in a positive spirit.

If I had anything else to say to God, it would be:

God, this is what we humans call making the first move. It's your turn, now.

Tagged by Cat

On a lighter note, I've just been tagged by Cat:

1. Grab the book closest to you, don't choose
2. Open to page 123, go down to the fifth sentence.
3. Post the text of the next three sentences on the blog.
4. Name the book and the author.
5. Tag three people

The text:

Concerned that the cardinal's magic might still work on the king, Suffolk arranged for Campeggio alone to be given lodgings at Grafton. However, the emollient Norris, groom of the stole, lent Wolsey his room to change in, and the cardinal's supporters flocked to welcome him and warn of the latest situation. Then the two delegates were called in to the presence chamber, packed with every courtier who could find a place, with polite greetings all the way, sincere and insincere.

The book is Eric Ives' The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Obviously this isolated quote doesn't exactly capture how great this book is: a fantastically well researched historical tome on a story that has everything you could possibly want: sex, love, fertility, politics, religion, royalty, divorce, scandal and semi-judicial murder!

And now I shall tag:
Lickety Split
Gilded Cage
Kiss Me Kate

By the way, a few people lately have tagged me with the six (or nine) wierd things tag, which I did some time ago. I have been very remiss in not letting those people know I've already done it, so please feel free to check out my responses to that tag.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Tale of Two Emilys

You know, I have a whole lot of stuff to say about all the good things that happened on our holiday, great memories, etc etc. And I will say them. But firstly, I need to get something off my chest.

Have you ever had a lot of thoughts, a lot of churning going on down deep, a lot of semi-urgent things to share with your partner which somehow never got shared?

I have so much going on within me right now. So many thoughts - about love and intimacy and sex and family and trauma and faith, and they are all the kinds of things that should be shared with my Big Dude. That's why we got together, right? Because we were each other's best friend. Because we could confide in each other. Because we could tell each other anything. Because we felt understood.

And tonight, I wanted to tell him all about those things. To cuddle up and talk through at least some of them. Because some of them are sitting so heavily on my chest that I feel like I can hardly breathe.

And what do we end up talking about?

Our petty irritations of the day. Our thoughts on the Little Dude and how he is going. Updates on the Big Dude's illnesses and how sick or othewise he feels. The things we need to get through in the next few days. Plans for the move. Worries about money. Then a whole series of irrelevant meanderings about current events and politics and an even more irrelevant digression onto poetry.

Why? I don't know. Everything tells us that a good relationship is about good communication. I would honestly say that both the Big Dude and I are good communicators in general. We are articulate. We can say what we mean. We genuinely attempt to listen to each other. We love each other and we really do try.

So, why do I spend so much of this relationship feeling like there are two Emilys? One of them goes to work, takes care of the Little Dude and carries on sensible and semi-rational conversations with her partner. The other is talking to herself in a sound-proofed room. Silently telling the real story where the man she loves cannot hear her.

Monday, December 18, 2006

I'm Back

I'm back!

It was a great, great holiday. We swam at the beach, we visited wineries, we lazed around in coffee shops, we walked along the lake, we visited friends and... (drum roll, please)

I slept in! Twice! That hasn't happened since the Little Dude was born!

More later.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

On Holiday

Emily is on holiday.

In the meantime, why not check out some of the fine people on her blogroll?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Set Point Theory

I woke up this morning feeling unexpectedly a bit better. I'm not sure why. I didn't sleep well, but I felt semi-refreshed. I felt purposeful. I felt a bit happier.

Now, there are two things happening in my life behind this small lift in mood. One is, I am going on holiday. We haven't been able to afford to go on holiday for quite some time, but now we are. A friend of ours whose family owns a holiday home by the lake has invited us over for a week and my mum has offered us the use of her car to get there. So the holiday is practically free!

And I love that house by the lake. I used to go there from time to time, years ago, and I have a lot of memories there. The last time I went there was after our first few cycles of unsuccessful fertility treatment. I was feeling quite drained and down. But something about the beauty and calm of the place, the stillness of the lake, soothed me. It made me think of that Yeats poem:

And I shall have some peace there
For peace comes dropping slow

No one who is going on holiday with a toddler gets to just do nothing. But as far as possible, I will do nothing next week. And two of my friends from my old intentional community live locally and I will be so happy to see them. You know those old friends you have, the ones who you feel so comfortable with and can have long, rambling, lazy conversations with? They are those type of friends.

And another good thing is happening. We have our new house! As I mentioned previously, we are planning to move into a semi-communal arrangement with my mum, with us paying her rent to live in the main house and her in the granny flat. She has bought the house and, oh, it's so lovely. Not at all flashy, but everything immaculate and so sunny and pretty. Right near (but not too near) a very good school and a small shopping area and a little cafe that seems like a great place to chill out and with a lovely natural bushy area just beyond the back yard. It makes my heart lift, just to think about it. Settlement is this week and we will be moving in in January.

I'm sure you can imagine how glad I am to have these happy things to think about. And my plan to see a counsellor, I think, is helping as well. I do like to have a plan.

But really, I am wondering something else. Because during this time I have been feeling so unutterably crap, these good things were happening and it was like I just couldn't see them.

A friend of mine wrote to me not long ago about set point theory in relation to body weight - the idea that your body tends to establish a particular weight range that is largely maintained when you have semi-reasonable eating and exercise habits. It has been proposed as the reason why the body responds to dieting by lowering our metabolism so that we regain weight, often with a bit extra, almost as soon as we stop dieting.

Sometimes I wonder if a person has an emotional set point. I have a few friends who struggle with depression - not just feeling down in response to hard times, but that free-floating, probably biologically based tendency to get depressed and stay there for a long time. I have almost the opposite kind of tendency. I tend to be mostly happy, although not euphoric, and start feeling down almost entirely in response to circumstances. But even in hard circumstances, after a little while, I start to bounce up again. Not in a manic, bi-polar, extreme kind of way. I do not bounce very high. But something inside me just seems to have an impulse towards happiness and tells me to please pull myself together and cheer the fuck up. I sort of talk myself into feeling a bit better. I'm resilient.

I think I might be lucky in that. Another reason to cheer the fuck up.

So I wouldn't say I was happy now. But I'm happier.

Thursday, December 07, 2006


Something happened this week, in the midst of all this angst, that has given me a little bit of hope. Not a lot of hope, it must be said. More like sitting in a very dark room and seeing a little pinprick of light. It might go out, it might turn out to be nothing, but even seeing it is better than just sitting in the dark.

I filled in a survey a few months ago for "wives" of Vietnam veterans, which was all about levels of psychological distress and coping methods. And now I have found a sort of summary of that report, which shows that approximately one-quarter of us have extremely severe levels of depression, anxiety and stress. The study attributes this to secondary trauma, resulting from living with a traumatised person. It is apparently more likely to happen with "wives" who have also had traumas of their own that aren't related to their partners.

My Big Dude has Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from his time in Vietnam and he has it pretty badly. It was the first problem that was ever diagnosed. He copes so well with it most of the time that most people wouldn't see that in him. He doesn't have those stereotypical behaviours like getting aggressive, go crazy in shopping centres, etc, but living at close quarters with him, it's obvious.

But what reading this summary paper is making me think is that I tend to view his PTSD as something he deals with. I haven't generally recognised how many of our issues as a couple may be caused or impacted by PTSD. This paper here is really making me think, because I see a lot of the issues it talks about in veteran marriages in our relationship. Issues around emotional numbing and disengagement, sexual problems made worse by his anxiety about it all, my own issues around caring for him - its all there. Not the violence, thank God. My Big Dude, after seeing all that killing in Vietnam, is now so gentle that he can't even bring himself to go fishing.

But even more, it's this paper that is striking me. It talks about the long-term effects of trauma as not just a collection of symptoms and behaviours, but as being about trust:

Trauma destroys the trust relationship of the victim with themselves and the world. This creates an inordinate amount of stress on the mental, emotional and physical capacities of the victim whose coping behaviours and belief structures have been shattered by trauma. The victim no longer knows how to act or what to expect from the world in order to survive. The victim develops characteristic symptoms described as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Apparently people who know the traumatised person and have frequent exposure to them often also end up with many of the symptoms of PTSD, in a kind of secondary trauma. A lot of the studies that are done are actually about the effects on therapists, but I think this is also really true of partners:

The experience of vicarious symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder may challenge the caregiver's basic faith, heighten a sense of personal vulnerability, distrust and cynicism about the human condition. The therapist may experience profound grief and feel as though he or she were in mourning with the victim.

That first quote, about the shattering of trust between the traumatised person and the world, well, that's exactly how I feel. Perhaps I don't have a "faith problem", so much as a trust problem. I seem to have lost that trust that the world is somehow good, that God is somehow good despite all the suffering, that terrible things won't just go on and on. I feel like something within me has been shattered and broken. I am starting to feel like those poor little dogs you see in psychological experiments who are given electric shocks to make them leap over a barrier. The first few times, they leap fine. After a while, with too many shocks, they stop. They just sit there, getting shocked over and over again, and they go completely passive and lie there whimpering. They no longer believe that they can stop the shocks coming, and they just can't make themselves keep jumping over the barrier.

I am wondering if the fact that I feel so inexplicably bad, so untrusting, so helpless, so kind of fundamentally flawed and broken, is because I am experiencing some kind of secondary trauma.

And I am wondering if I am experiencing this now because the Big Dude's general coping with his PTSD has been particularly bad this year. He has functioned great as a dad, our relationship has actually improved, but he isn't doing well. This is the first year that he has actually described himself as depressed, booked himself in to see a psychiatrist and been willing to take anti-depressants. He hates all sickness related labels, hates seeing doctors or specialists of any kind, hates talking about his feelings or dwelling on anything bad, and hates taking drugs, so the fact that he is doing all these things suggests to me that he must be feeling absolutely desperate.

The Big Dude and I, despite our issues, have always been close. What affects him, affects me. It's not just the way he behaves that affects me. It's the way he feels. We have this strong, empathic link. When his father died, I was on the other side of the country, I didn't know it had happened, but that day I was overcome by a feeling of grief and sadness and I didn't know why. When he told me what had happened, it was a confirmation rather than a surprise.

I know there is no magic bullet for issues like human suffering, spiritual angst, etc, but there are treatments for trauma, including secondary trauma, and there are some coping methods that work better than others.

So I am also wondering if I should see a counsellor at the Vietnam Veterans Counselling Service - for myself.

Because I swear, I seem to be going under, I feel like I am drowning and it's not like me. I like the tag line on this page: "Honour the dead but fight like hell for the living". I, too, am still among the living and maybe I need to start fighting like hell for myself.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Problem of Evil: Part II

I have been thinking quite a lot about theology, lately. My theology, as in my thoughts about God and my relationship with God. Now, inevitably, anyone who believes in God comes up against the problem of evil: as in, if God is good, and God loves me, and God could cure or prevent the suffering in the world including mine, then why is there so much suffering? And why am I suffering?

Now, there are many theological semi-answers to this. A surprisingly good summary of them is at Wikipedia's Problem of Evil entry. Their thoughts are, frankly, a lot more sophisticated than mine because far better minds than mine have wrestled with this problem.

I have a somewhat different set of dilemmas in my mind partly because, due to my fundamentalist background, my thinking tends to be steeped in the Bible rather than in classical philosophy and theology.

In the Bible, I find two basic answers to the origin of evil. The first, and this is not a view generally held among Christians, is that evil comes quite directly from God. God is the creator of the universe and God created evil as well as good.

In the Old Testament, evil is mainly a word for the bad things that happen: natural disasters, plagues, losing battles, invasions, personal misfortunes. In other religions, the religions of the people who surrounded the Jews, a multitude of gods was the norm and gods were not necessarily good. Various gods struggled for power among themselves and a lot of disasters for humans were attributed to the temporary triumph of essentially malicious or callous gods and/or the general fall-out from the power struggles between the gods. Stories like the Iliad, where the war is caused by gods displeased with particular humans and also competing among themselves, reflect this kind of religion.

In contast, the God of the Jews was the only God. And although there are certainly times when disasters are caused by the sins of humans and the resulting wrath of God, God is often the author of disasters which seem quite unjustified, even in the story. For the Jews, God was the creator. There was no other creator, and therefore God must have created evil as well as good, just as he created darkness as well as light. One way or another, all the disasters and terrible experiences that happen to humans come ultimately from God:

I am the Lord and there is no other
I form the light and create darkness
I bring prosperity and create disaster
I, the Lord, do all these things.(Isiah 45:7)

Does evil befall a city unless God has done it? (Amos 3:6)

In fact, the God of the Old Testament is not necessarily the kind of flawless, perfect, loving and even consistent God we tend to think of as the Christian God. God is more like a sort of eastern potentate. Very powerful, but prone to changing his mind and even to bursts of what looks like sheer bad temper. One of my best friends once said to me, "I think God has a dark side", and I knew justwhat he meant.

Perhaps it is for this reason that Satan isn't portrayed as a very powerful figure. Satan is like a kind of courtier dealing with a powerful king. He doesn't really seem to be evil or opposed to God. He serves an important function as an accusor, a kind of prosecutor, in a court dominated by God as judge. Satan can suggest certain things to God, even challenge God, but God is very much in control and makes the final decisons.

This view is pretty much exemplified in the Book of Job. Essentially, the book begins with God boasting to Satan about Job, who is portrayed as a very good man who honours God and does everything right. Satan points out to God that this is because God has looked after Job and blessed him with prosperity. If God struck him and took those things away, Job's upright character and faith in God would quickly disappear. So God gives him over to Satan for testing and Satan takes away all his worldly goods, kills his children and afflicts him with horrible diseases. Job complains, at length, but refuses to curse God and die, as recommended by his wife. Various friends visit and tell Job that he must have sinned to bring such punishment upon himself, which is clearly not true. Job defends himself and refuses to concede that he has done anything wrong. In the end, Job is partially vindicated. God gives a long speech, stressing his own incredible power and majesty and generally making it clear that Job has no right to criticise his justice. But once Job admits he has no right to reproach God, God then restores all of what Job had and more.

Now, many people find the Book of Job comforting, and in a way it is. If you find it comforting to reflect on the fact that God moves in mysterious ways, that God is essentially just and merciful in his own way rather than in the ways that humans would prefer, and humans should stay humble and accept that this is all part of some overall purpose that we are too small and limited to see, then you'll probably like the Book of Job.

Personally, aside from the pleasure of the beautiful language, I find the Job story alarming. God allows Satan to do terrible things to Job and his family, esentially for a kind of bet. And while Job may wind up better off than he started, nothing is really said about the dead children who seem to be largely collateral damage. Although Satan has a role, it is essentially God who afflicts Job by handing him over. Frankly, I think Job's complaints against God are fully justified.

The New Testament seems to have quite a different view of evil. In the New Testament, evil is not so much concrete things like illnesses or disasters. Evil is a kind of radical evil, a spiritual force behind human suffering. The various demons and mysterious spiritual entitites who are more on the margins of the Old Testament stories are suddenly quite central. Both Satan and the minor devils seem much more unambiguously malevolent and cause a lot of human misery. Jesus spends a fair amount of time showing that he has authority over them by casting them out. Satan motivates Judas to betray Jesus, but Jesus triumphs in the end through his resurrection.

But this triumph isn't complete. The letters from various disciples to the churches tend to stress that Satan is the god of this world, somehow temporarily allowed to reign until God's purposes are all fulfilled. Evil and suffering are the norm, until Jesus comes back:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.(Eph 6:12)

Why go into all this? Well, because I think my spiritual crisis is about God as the author of evil and suffering. In my heart of hearts, I find the portrayal of God in the Old Testament and the Book of Job both alarming and convincing. Not so much at the intellectual level, on some abstract theological plain, but emotionally.

Terrible things have happened and are happening to me and to the people I love and God seems to do nothing about it. God doesn't seem very motivated to do anything about suffering around the world, either. Frankly, I suspect him of having something to do with it. Either he is causing it or he is allowing it, and I don't much care which of these it is because the real issue for me is the damage and the pain.

I do not know whether this issue for me is somehow tied up with theology, dodgy or otherwise, or even if it is simply that being in the midst of suffering, not reflecting on it in hindsight after a happy ending, or even just after gaining a sense of perspective, gives a person a kind of distorted view.

I am grieving. I am truly sad. I am so sad for my Big Dude, for the loss of so many of the good things he was, for the losses to our relationship. I am frightened of the implications of his illnesses for him, for me and for our baby. I am frightened about what will happen next. And I am so sad for my friend Judy and her daughter. And I am so sad for my sister, who was raped. If such terrible things can happen to such truly good people, then no one is safe.

It feels like I managed to deal with my feelings about all these things as they happened, individually and in succession. But for some reason that I don't quite understand, all these griefs now seem to be piling up on me somehow, and I am struggling to stand up under them. I manage. I even manage to enjoy most of my life. But there is some deep, wrenching grief doing on within me, half-buried beneath my daily life, and my deepest and most secret thoughts are often very dark. God apparently allows almost unbearable pain, and yet I can't feel that he is here with me, sharing any of it. I try to feel that he is here, I do, but I feel alone. And I feel afraid.

I know that I am not the only one. C S Lewis is one of my favourite authors. I love, not only the Narnia stories with their beautiful Christlike Aslan, but also a lot of his lesser-known fiction and non-fiction. He was a famous Christian intellectual and spokesperson who wrote extensively about issues like suffering. But frankly, a lot of it was remote, intellectual. When real suffering actually happened to him, when the wife he loved got cancer and died, his state of mind seems to have been something like mine. In A Grief Observed, Lewis wrote that, in the midst of grief, he was surprised to find that "grief felt so much like fear". He found that he still believed in God, but he was "in danger of coming to believe such terrible things about him." God must be a "Cosmic Sadist", even a "spiteful imbecile".

At the moment, I find Lewis's terrible grief and doubt after his wife died so much more convincing that his ultimate acceptance and reconciliation to her loss. This quote struck me with a terrible force:

Where is God? Go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the other side... There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited?

I believe and hope that I, and we, will come through this. That my faith in God will not be lost and may even be restored to me. That somehow I will find that God has been here with me all the time. But for the moment, God does feel like the careless God of Job who inflicts suffering and says that we are not allowed to criticise. He does seem like Lewis's Cosmic Sadist.

And I don't talk to sadists.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Problem of Evil: Part I

I think that I am in the midst of some kind of spiritual crisis. And I am surprised because, at some level, I thought that stuff was at least partially resolved for me.

The last time this happened, it was mainly about getting away from fundamentalism. It was at least partly an intellectual problem, even if it had its emotional side, too. It was mainly a question of "If I don't believe in THAT, what do I believe?"

This time, intellectually, I am mostly fine. But emotionally, spiritually, I'm not.

G K Chesterton once wrote: "Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair". I get that. I know exactly what he means. I have quite liberal theological views, some of which probably seem very academic to other people, but I have never believed in faith as an intellectual exercise. And to the extent that my religion is a love affair, it's a love affair that isn't going very well.

You know those times during a relationship when you know you have issues, you know you need to resolve them in some sensible and constructive manner, but somehow you just can't make that move? Right at the point where you should at least try to listen to the other person, you should at least try to be reasonable, you retreat into yourself and you get used to feeling alone. You find a perverse satisfaction in feeling ill-used. I feel like that with God: "If you aren't going to help me, God, then please just go away and leave me alone."

I have all these sad, angry thoughts swirling around. I'm sad. I'm angry. And to tell you the truth, I don't know where God is. I feel abandoned. And although I rail away at God, the truth is that I feel like there is something horribly wrong with me.

I am really hesitating to publish this post. It's almost too close to the bone for public consumption and I've been appreciating all the comments about what an admirable person I am and how well I cope. But what the hell. Gotta stick with the honesty rule, right, or what's the point?

My Favourite Album

A couple of nights ago, our public broadcaster, the ABC, screened the long-awaited results of its viewer poll on the top ten favourite albums of all time in Australia.

Guess what they were? Drum roll, please...

Pink Floyd — Dark Side of the Moon
Jeff Buckley — Grace
Radiohead — OK Computer
The Beatles — Abbey Road
The Beatles — Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Nirvana — Nevermind
Led Zeppelin — Four
Red Hot Chili Peppers — Blood Sugar Sex Majik
Meat Loaf — Bat Out of Hell
U2 — Joshua Tree

What do you think?

I was stunned. I will willingly admit that there is some pretty good music there. But a list of great albums with no Bob Dylan? No Bruce Springsteen? How could Pet Sounds not be there? No women at all. No black people. No punk, either. And how the hell can this be an Australian list with no AC/DC? In fact, there is no Australian music there at all!

But, of course, it occurs to me now that it was a poll of favourite albums rather than best albums. In my experience, the music a person loves, truly loves, is very personal. It usually reminds them of some intense time in their lives - a time when they were feeling happy and very alive or a time of heartbreak, something like that.

And now I am thinking about the albums I have most loved and why, but they will have to be the subject of another post.

Monday, December 04, 2006


PS - Of course, while no one wants to be the carer, no one is exactly queuing up to be the sick person either!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Becoming a Carer: 10 Easy Steps

Now, O272 has asked a good question:

Did you foresee this happening? Is it something you had to take into consideration when you opted to spend your life with him? I know you said his illness has gotten progressively worse, but I wonder if things have turned out as you had planned. Did you think you could handle it back then or did you not see it coming at all?

The Big Dude wasn’t sick when we feel in love. He was older than me, it's true, and I recognised the potential for a caring role later, much later. But I certainly never expected it to begin in his forties. He was a superbly healthy and fit man when we met. He had hardly ever been to a doctor in his life. He looked a least a decade younger than he was. He was incredibly attractive and sexy. A friend of mine said that he had the strongest sexual presence of any man she had ever met.

When I look at our life together, especially our sex life, it seems to have happened so inexorably. It's all clear in hindsight. But at each stage, it was not at all easy to see what was happening. I often ask myself if I have done the right thing by myself by staying, but I am just wondering at what point any of my readers would have left him?

Step 1. You meet the most interesting, caring, loyal man you have ever met before. You feel an intense physical, mental and spiritual attraction. You tell yourself it's just a fling and so the age difference doesn’t matter. The sex, which happens virtually every day, is fantastic.

Then you both fall deeply in love. This wasn't what you intended. But you have never felt so loved, so desired, or had such a good friend, and neither has he. Would you leave him now?

Step 2. He gets pneumonia. He needs a bit of looking after for a few weeks. He is so unused to being sick that he doesn't even see a doctor. Is he too much trouble, yet? Would you leave him now?

Step 3. He seems largely recovered and things go back to normal. Your relationship deepens. You move in together. You have so many common interests, so much laughter, so much love and tenderness. You are happier than you have ever been. You gradually realize you want sex about five times a week and he wants it about 2-3 times, but the quality is excellent. He thinks the decline in frequency is because he is still not completely well, although he is recovering slowly but steadily. Is this small difference in sex drive enough of a reason to leave him now?

Step 4. He gets glandular fever. He has never had it before, in the same way that he has had virtually no other illneses before. Poor thing – over forty years of perfect health and now two illnesses in a row. It's a good thing you learned a bit about taking care of him last time. The sex falls to about once per week. You discuss it, but he is sure than he will be better soon. It is hard for him to believe that he is sick in the first place. Would you leave him now?

Step 5. He doesn’t seem to fully recover. The sex falls to about once every ten days. You feel hurt. You feel undesired. You sulk a bit. You discuss it again. You think that, surely, he will be better soon. The rest of the relationship is pretty happy, despite the fact that his former superb energy doesn't seem to have returned. The athlete you fell in love with is having to learn to be content with his other interests, like reading. You are having to do more for him, or his health seems to deteriorate. You love him and he loves you. You recognise it can take a while to get over glandular fever. Would you leave him now?

Step 6. It's been a few months and he is still not fully well. The sex falls to about once every three weeks. But you are so close in other ways, and in fact the crisis seems to have brought you very close together emotionally. Your friends envy you because you two seem to love each other so much more than the average couple. You are getting used to the caring role. And sometimes he is almost well and the sexual frequency improves. He is diagnosed with post viral syndrome and told he should recover in the next few weeks or months. Would you leave him now?

Step 7. He is diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. The sex has fallen to about once per month or less, but it’s a relief to finally have a real diagnosis that recognises the seriousness of the problem and some courses of action. Most people recover within two years. Some unlucky people don't. Surely, having enjoyed excellent health for most of his life, as a healthy eater, an athlete, a non-smoker, a teetotaller, a man with a lifetime of good habits, he will be one of the lucky ones?

And you have a lot of hope for your future together. You have been living together for two years now and you've been mostly happy. You're not loving the carer role or the decline in your sex life, but the two of you love each other more than ever. The more you know him, the more you realize what a truly fine person he is. You would marry him, if you believed in marriage. Would you leave him now?

Step 8. It's been three years. It is finally becoming clear that he is not a fundamentally healthy person who is having a run of bad luck. He is becoming a chronically ill person. He has tried most recommended treatments. Some work for a while, some don't. Nothing works for long. He starts to lose his former complete confidence that he will get well. He is getting depressed. He is having trouble getting up in the morning. He feels he has no life.

You love him and you want to help him to keep his spirits up. You don't even mind looking after him. But there is one key problem. The sex has fallen to about once every couple of months and sometimes less. You feel frustrated and alienated, and you can’t understand how this is happening. You feel so undesired. You feel so sad. It used to be so simple - he wanted you and you wanted him. Now you still want him, but it is not at all clear how he really feels. He is the strong and silent type. He is not good at talking about his feelings. And he is not sure he really has any feelings, except for feelings of being sick and tired all the time.

You both get frustrated. You understand he is sick but, hey, a woman has needs. He understands how you feel, but you seem to be thinking about sex all the time - it's like you don't care about him, only about sex. He still loves you and you still love him. Would you leave him now? Or is this just a "bad patch"?

And, in any case, would you leave your best friend, the man you love, who has stood with you through every problem, to face this crisis alone?

Step 9. His father dies. He retreats more and more into sadness and depression. He hardly talks to you any more. The sex falls to a few times per year and even that isn't very good. He sees a counsellor and it seems to help a bit, but the service is really for individuals, not for couples. Every time you raise how unhappy you are, any needs you might have, he looks pained and guilty but says he can't understand how a person who is healthy, who has a life, can claim to be unhappy. You ask him to see a couple counsellor or a sex therapist. He asks if either of those professionals would have a cure for his illnesses and refuses to go because it wouldn’t do any good, anyway.

You finally fully realize what is happening to your life. This is not a temporary crisis, but a new life of the kind you never wanted. You are becoming a carer – a nurse, rather than a lover. You have fallen in love with a chronically ill man and you may be caring for him for the rest of your life. And you may be doing without sex for the rest of your life.

You are only 24 years old.

You are like a strong swimmer who teamed up with another strong swimmer - a known survivor, who has spent all his life helping other people. The other swimmer falters. You stay with him. You talk him through it. At his weaker moments, you carry him along. Surely, surely you will get to the shore soon. And suddenly, he is drowning and he is pulling you down with him.

You are sinking into depression yourself. You are really struggling. You are putting on weight because only food and alcohol seem to make you feel better. You realize how badly you are coping. You know things could get even worse. You are full of love and pity for him, but you are worried about yourself.

You have dreams about tidal waves crashing over you and about losing control of cars - dreams about loss of control of your life. You dream about a man who is half-dead and who is trying to shut you into a coffin with him.

Would you leave him now? Do you even have the emotional energy to leave him now?

Step 10. You pull yourself together. You see a counsellor. You lose weight. You get fitter. You cope better. But the fact is, he is only getting sicker. He is diagnosed with a couple of other illnesses - linked with service in Vietnam. In fact, you read about people with chronic fatigue syndrome who have been exposed to pesticides, and you wonder about the Big Dude and Agent Orange. You wonder if a man who has barely slept in thirty years has any real chance of recovery from any of his illnesses. You look around at the other Vietnam veteran families you know, and illness is a major theme - the trauma, the lack of sleep, the exposure to toxic chemicals, it all seems to be catching up with these men as they get older and their defences wear down. Many of these men and their families are far worse off than you. The women look haggard.

For yourself, you are now coping better, but the distance between you is increasingly hard to cross. You are not even sure if you want to cross it. You have a lot of polite conversations. By this time, the sex is virtually non-existent.

You meet someone you find attractive. Someone with many of the qualities of your man when he was well – highly intelligent, funny, caring. You feel good when you are with him. He makes you laugh. And he really, really desires you. You realize that you had forgotten what that was like - that spark of spontaneous attraction, that breathless euphoria.

And you want to escape your life. You really, really want to escape. Would you leave him now?

I did. I have covered some of what happened next here, here and here.

I retrace my steps and I can see how I got here. But sometimes it seems like there was only one step: continuing to love a man who was unlucky enough to get sick. The easiest way to become a carer is to care about someone.

We all hope that, if we got sick, the one we love would care for us. We wouldn't want to be sick and alone. But no one wants to be the carer.

Friday, December 01, 2006

God on My Side

I saw a new documentary the other day: Andrew Denton's God on My Side. Essentially, Denton, who is an Australian interviewer/chat show host, starts with the idea of the "clash of civilisations" thesis and pictures of Islamic fundamentalists selling Osama Bin Laden t-shirts. Then he decides that maybe he will have a look at the fundamentalists a little closer to home. He goes to the Convention of Religious Broadcasters in Gaylord, Texas.

The movie has been criticized as kind of a weak documentary, because there is not much editorialising or analysis. Denton just walks around, interviewing people and mainly letting them speak for themselves. He is interested in them, in which they believe and why they believe it. He is interested in faith and where it takes us.

There were things I really hated about that convention. All the merchandising, for a start. I'm more of an overturning-the-tables-of-the-money-changers kind of a girl rather than a buy-a-t-shirt-saying-I'm-a-believer kind of a girl. Let alone a buying-a-Noah's-ark lollipop kind of a girl. But the fact is that a lot of the personalities at the convention have considerable charm. And they certainly seem to believe in what they are doing.

I was kind of confronted by how attracted I still am by that kind of Christianity. The fact is that I can be kind of a sucker for people who speak with conviction. I doubt so much, myself, that people who knows exactly what they believe, well, I am kind of incredulous about them but at the same time it makes me doubt myself even more. I can be very wishy-washy that way.

For a while there, I listened to those people and I really wondered about myself. Why does their unearthly serenity make me feel kind of sour? What the hell is wrong with me? Why can't I just believe those things? It would solve a heck of a lot of problems for me. How come I hardly pray any more? Do I really think I'm so much better than them? For a while there, I really wanted to be them.

They seem to have such faith that God is good and that everything will come right in the end. I want to believe that. I do. But somehow, between the time my sister was raped, the months I spent interviewing refugees and listening to all that suffering, my experience of infertility, seeing my Big Dude, the best man I know, sick every day, my friend with the daughter with Huntingdon's Disease, I lost that kind of faith. My neighbour told me yesterday that she has just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and it is spreading. She is 22 years old. I do not know how these people can see all this stuff and go on with such faith.

Sadly, listening to them didn't make me believe in their version of Christianity, though. I just kind of envied them. I'm like a person with a toothache who really, really wishes that she believed in the tooth fairy because it would be so comforting.

And actually, I sort of wonder if what those people believe actually is Christianity. I mean, I do remember what it was like to believe in a God who was all tied up with family values and patriotism and that kind of thing. Those were all good things, and it seemed natural that they came in a package. But, to be honest, it doesn't seem to have much to do with the Jesus of the gospels.

I mean, is their family values Jesus the same Jesus who told a man not to bury his own father? Who told his mother and brothers that his true family were those who obeyed God? Who apparently didn't either marry or have children? Does all that patriotism really come from Jesus, who seems to have been content to co-exist with the foreign empire occupying his country? Does that simple message they preach, with its straightforward, bullet-point rules, really come from the Jesus who preached in the form of stories, parables, riddles and questions? The Jesus of the gospels, to me, is quite enigmatic. There is light and shadow. There is mystery. So why is this form of religion so... glossy?

And the sorry fact is that a lot of the other stuff was kind of damning. You know, I'm genuinely happy for them that they know that Jesus loves them and that they are on their way to heaven, but is there really any excuse nowadays for showing women who have had abortions pictures of little fetuses? For believing it's okay to beat homosexuals around the head with bible verses? How would they like it if I beat them around the head with all the bible verses about God's attitude to rich people?

And once the interviews got onto their beliefs about the End Times, those people totally lost me. It's really quite something to listen to someone who thinks that the solution to problems in the Middle East is to nuke Iran and who believes that, if we do, everything will be okay because Jesus will rescue the Christians in the rapture before everything turns to shit. Pity about all the other billions of people, huh?

And, you know, I really don't mind what they believe. I really don't mind if people believe in fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Islam or that their healing chrystals are talking to them. I mean, I have believed in some pretty silly things myself, and I'm sure I still do. It just worries me how much power these people seem to be accumulating.

There was this very nice woman, a former Hollywood star, who spoke with great conviction. She wasn't one of those never-had-any-experience-of-suffering-and-therefore-apparently-lives-in-cloud-cuckoo-land kind of people. She'd had eight failed marriages and nine miscarriages. That's a lot of pain right there. But she seemed very concerned that we should all know that her kind of Christian is not boring. She's right. These kinds of Christians are not boring. They're a little fucking scary, that's what they are.

Maybe my wishy-washy faith isn't as bad as I fear, even though I would like it to change. As Mark Twain said,

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.