Reading blue milk and hoping desperately for a lengthy nap from two grumpy infants, I came across this link to an article about an amazing project: taking the single photographs requested by people in solitary confinement. I was struck by the number of requests for pictures of downtown Chicago- for neighborhoods and junctions that the prisoner knows well. It reminded me of a scene that always moved me from Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, where an old Aboriginal man, half crazed with loss and disease and alcohol, inspires William Thornhill’s envy for the solace he draws from sitting on a particular piece of land.
The areas that the prisoners want pictures of are not especially salubrious. Beauty has nothing to do with it. They are just places that are dense with personal history: it is as if the prisoner is requesting a picture of his own past.
There’s something wonderful and terrifying about have a place like this, where your entire history sits, layer on layer, like some great midden. I am thinking about this particularly at the moment because I have just bought a ticket to go and visit my first 14 years, which resides on the south coast of NSW. My children, that ultimate anchor in time and place, are little Europeans, and somehow I feel comforted by the idea of being in Australia with them.
On the weekend, we took the kids to the Zachęta Gallery, to give them (or actually, us) a little dose of culture. The leaves are turning, the wind is blowing, and there will be no more sitting around in the park this year unless the season dramatically regresses. So off we went to the gallery- one of the things, by the way, which is cheaper when you have children.
We wound up the day at the photo exhibition on the first floor – pictures of the ways in which people used to entertain themselves in communist Poland. Maja had fallen asleep in my arms and I carried her dead weight, head flopping on her soft little flower neck, amongst the crowds of hipsters. It was by far the most popular exhibition in the gallery, and I could see what the fascination was about.
There they were, those inhabitants of the bad old days of queues and ingenuity and making do, watching the horse races, lounging on benches, crowding out of the football stadium, pushing their 3-ton prams under the towering apartment blocks of Nowa Huta, trudging along a muddy road with their satchels on their backs. The children in a factory nursery lay on their little bunks under the tree for their obligatory nap time, draped with identical checked blankets. Since all the shots had appeared in the press of the time, there was nothing overtly controversial, and there was also a good sprinkling of noble peasants and tillers of the earth.
I don’t know if it’s just a special property of black and white photos, but I found myself fighting off a sort of politically incorrect nostalgia to which I most definitely had no right. Those simple days, those simple people, spared the terrible strain of having to be capitalist success stories. How nice not to be obliged to try and get rich. And those innocent pleasures. Etc etc. I was a bit ashamed of myself. I asked Marcin afterwards what his impression had been, and he said, ‘greyness.’ A very literal response, but probably truer. I thought later that any response of his would always be more legitimate than mine, since he lived in those times.
Last Wednesday, I gave my first English lesson in almost a year. It was pouring with rain and union protests had gridlocked the city, but so keen was I that I still managed to be on time. I was going to a former student of mine, so we already knew each other and I didn’t have to worry about the development of rapport, and I already had some idea what she might want and need from me. I actually felt sheer excitement as I put on my serious outfit and climbed onto the bus with my umbrella, pretending to be a real grownup professional woman with deep wisdom to impart.
This performance (that’s what it felt like) continued through our lesson- I scribbled notes, nodded gravely, thought about how I was going to plan our time together and completely forgot about my babies. When we were finished, she walked me to the door and shook my hand and thanked me. I sat in the bus with all the other wet-dog commuters and smiled to myself all the way home. I was sure that I had acted my part so successfully that nobody could see the dishevelled and half-mad mother of two small children inside my power pantaloons.
I wondered afterwards why it was so much more satisfying than my daily childcare triumphs . Is it because I am so conditioned that I also discount the effort it takes to get through the day with two babies? Or because I had the sense of joining in the great theatre of importance that constitutes life Outside the Home? Or because somebody thanked me?
Partly I think that I enjoyed making a mental effort which was not connected solely with logistics, and the idea that this effort might change something fairly quickly- my student might know something she didn’t know before. I liked her responsiveness to my suggestions. I also liked the idea of getting paid. But mainly, I think the satisfaction came from feeling like a working woman again. It seems to be crucial to my self esteem.
As I browse the blogs of my feminist mummy bloggers, I suddenly become aware that they have a tag which I don’t – ‘parenting’. Instead, I have ‘motherhood’.
When I started wondering why this was the case, it became obvious to me that the thing which I have had to come to terms with (rather than just getting used to), is the motherhood aspect. Accustoming yourself to parenting seems to be a matter of adjusting to an external situation: the presence of others in your space and the obligation to meet their demands. But for me, the whole idea of motherhood has involved a more complex set of calculations and adjustments.
Because it turns out that I am not (as I have thought for years) just some sort of man who happpens to need a bra. I have had to come to terms with being female, and with the role that I find myself in, which I don’t always like, of organiser, worrier, clairvoyant, digester of a thousand parenting books. I don’t know how much is biological (I am also the gestator and lactator) and how much is social, but I have the uncomfortable sensation of becoming something despite myself. It’s humbling and confusing and inspires a new respect in me for those mothers (and not parents) who have travelled this path before me.
I’m adding the ‘parenting’ tag, by the way. But it’s not the thing which is currently exercising my mind.
Opening the Polish equivalent to the Good Weekend, I found an interview with the British writer Rachel Cusk, talking about the book (Aftermath) that she wrote after her divorce. It was bleak and sobering and presumably utterly honest – she was saying what nobody wants to hear, that there is no new life after divorce (or any other traumatic event). She flatly refused to pander to the increasingly desperate pleas of the interviewer, who wanted to hear a tale of rebirth after trauma, of rising shriven from the flames.
Interviewer: You constantly talk about the experience in terms of loss. Haven’t you gained anything?
Int: A better understanding of yourself?
RC: No. If anything, I understand myself less [……….]
Int: And you? Don’t you feel better?
RC: I don’t really feel anything.
She must have been a nightmare to interview, but it made me desperately want to read her earlier book about motherhood (A Life’s Work) which she apparently approached with similar cheerless truthfulness. Everything she said in the interview contradicted the evident need of the interviewer (and the reader) for some sort of narrative justice: she would not say that she had learned anything important, or that the divorce had improved her life in any way, or that she was freer or happier or materially or emotionally better off. She simply refused to tie up all the loose ends and hand over a glib little package of hope. I would like to hear more of what she has to say.
After a trip to Kraków with my mum and a heady, childless perusal of galleries, I am forced to conclude that what I like is kitsch and cliche. I am too clueless about the mechanics of colour and style to be impressed by (or aware of) technical innovation, so my basis for deciding what interests me is content. We spent half an afternoon in the Gallery of 19th Century Polish Art above the cloth market, where I found myself shamefully and absolutely absorbed by the genre scenes- peasants ploughing their Ukrainian fields in the late afternoon light, all golden and simple yet dignified. The dark, brutish faces of the peasants in the inn, painted by Franciszek Kostrzewski after whom, coincidentally, our street is named. I am also partial to the weak, muddy light and horsedrawn sleighs of the winter scenes (especially when they have peasants in them).
The frozen faces of royalty don’t speak to me, the detail in the battle scenes overwhelms me (though I am fascinated by the presence and role of dogs in these paintings), the lofty mythological and historical references go right over my head. I like landscapes, but those can still be seen in real life, much as they ever were. So I’m left with the peasants, tilling their earth and thinking their noble (yet inscrutable) peasant thoughts. Here’s hoping my taste matures.