Gefilte fish for whom? Remembering and forgetting in Eastern Europe

I joked that my recent holiday itinerary read like Hitler’s ‘To Do’ list. Poland. Ukraine. Germany. I didn’t intend to spend half my holiday kneeling at sites of tragedy, but when you find yourself in the vicinity of places that echo notoriously through history it seems impossible not to join the procession of modern-day mourners. But as much as I was confronted by sombre monuments of grief, in other places I found myself searching for evidence that anything had happened at all. Eastern Europe, it seemed, is locked in a macabre waltz of remembering and forgetting. Who is remembered and who is forgotten, what events are enshrined in human memory and which have turned to dust, seem to have everything to do with building a story we – the victors, the bystanders, the inheritors – can live with.

Remembering

The day before our scheduled visit to Auschwitz I said, ‘I’m worried about going to Auschwitz.’

My husband replied, ‘I’m worried about you going to Auschwitz’.

‘Why?’ I asked, expecting a beautiful desire to protect me from the pain of being in such a place.

‘Because you’re going to get angry at people and I’m going to spend the day trying to ensure you don’t get angry at people and then trying to calm you down after you get angry at people.’

‘Ok,’ I said. ‘That’s why I’m worried about going to Auschwitz.’

But compelled by my Jewish family history and the insistence of Polish tourism, I disembarked at Auschwitz. I cutaway here to a scene from the film, The Reader – based on Bernard Schlink’s brilliant meditation on the culpability of every day Germans, the tension between generations, and Germany’s efforts to come to terms with its crimes.

Ilana

[Auschwitz survivor, speaking forty years after her liberation]

People ask all the time what I learned in the camps. But the camps weren’t therapy. What do you think these places were? Universities? We didn’t go there to learn. One becomes very clear about these things. What are you asking for? Forgiveness…? Or do you just want to feel better yourself? My advice, go to the theatre, if you want catharsis. Please. Go to literature. Don’t go to the camps. Nothing comes out of the camps. Nothing.

My notes from this day, which I thought might form the basis of this piece, were a torrent of misdirected anger. Frustration with tourists who scuttled to take photos of piles of shoes that belonged to people who burnt in Auschwitz’s ovens, with those who took sombre selfies no doubt hash-tagged ‘#neverforget’, with the hungover group of guys in personalised buck’s trip shirts. I wanted to force these people’s faces to the light and scream, ‘you just don’t get it, do you?’

Then I had a drunken conversation in the pub with a guy who listened to my rant and admitted he had taken photos in Auschwitz because he simply didn’t know what else to do. He was so shocked that the robotic motion of raising his camera was his way of engaging with the unimaginable and controlling his grief. As I reflected upon this, days later, I realised my furious, lashing temper was my own reaction to not knowing what to do. I turned my bile upon those around me for there were no Nazis upon which I could unleash my grief.

Forgetting

The next day I went to Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish district, the area Jews had been permitted to live from the 1500s until they were interred in an overcrowded, policed ghetto in 1941. Poland’s Jewish culture had been the world’s most significant for many centuries, before being destroyed during the Holocaust. From a pre-war population of 3.5 million, today the entire Polish Jewish community is thought to be around 20 000. Or, as the ever-informed Krakow cab driver told me, ‘there are very, very few Jews who live in Krakow today.’ So I was surprised to turn a corner into the heart of the Jewish district and find Little Israel: lively stalls hawking menorahs and fridge magnets of Rabbis, and cafes trumpeting kosher menus and Krakow’s best gefilte fish – a Passover staple of cold, ground fish balls.

This wasn’t a sign of a local Jewish revival – this was a cynical play to the thousands of foreign Jews who come searching for their families. This was a performance. The creation of a sellable culture that barely exists in Poland’s reality and is still struggling for acceptance in a country with lingering anti-Semitic prejudices.

A week later I was lost in Warsaw. Google was trying to send me into a very secure apartment building. The map the concierge had frowned over before marking, tentatively, with a question mark, matched my location exactly.

‘Want ghetto?’ a shabbily-dressed man barked at me. I was startled and didn’t quite know how to respond.

‘Want ghetto!’ he repeated, more insistently. I nodded. He set off quickly. I trotted behind him, I guessed I was meant to. We crossed a few car parks, and turned a few corners. We came through a back gate of the apartment building Google had sent me to. ‘Ghetto’ he said, pointing into a very private looking courtyard. Then he left.

And there it was. A small sign pointing to an ominous and incongruous hunk of wall, enclosed entirely by an apartment building. ‘Remnant of Warsaw Ghetto Wall’. This wall had violently deprived the liberties of nearly half a million Polish Jews. It had starved them of their freedom, dignity, work and living essentials. It was enormous –nearly double the height of the Berlin Wall. And it was so hidden, so forgotten. I couldn’t believe how lost it was.

Author with the Warsaw ghetto wall

The author at the Warsaw ghetto wall

Nothing comes out of the camps. I worry that museums of death – Auschwitz, Chernobyl, the Killing Fields ­– with their overwhelming statistics, overshadow the personal and the individual. They create a giant mass of ‘victims’ distinguishable only for their mass suffering.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Auschwitz survivor Victor E. Frankl writes of the consumption of prisoners as a literal human resource. Stripped of dignity and humanness, prisoners were used until their bodies were no longer useful, stripped of any bodily items (hair, for instance) of enduring material value, disposed of, and replaced. I could not participate however remotely in allowing people to become numbers and resources.

I followed Ilana’s advice and went to literature. In every country I visited, I read the testimonies of survivors – not just Holocaust survivors, but victims of Communist repression too. I wanted to remember the people and not the regime. They had names, not just shoes left in a pile in a concentration camp. I want to remember these people not by their deaths, but by their lives. Where their memory burns is not in the monuments of their deaths built by their murderers but in their stories, if we care to listen.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program. 

Finding My Family In Europe’s Least-Visited Country

We’ve pulled up at a church sandwiched amongst houses. This part of the city, with its winding, incredibly narrow, cobbled streets, feels like a village. There’s no trace of the belching Ladas (the ubiquitous Soviet-era car) and noisy trams that jostled along the wide street we turned off a few minutes ago. A few people have stuck their heads out of their windows to watch with interest as our van awkwardly negotiates the hills and tight corners. Taxis don’t come here apparently.

My non-English speaking driver has offered entreaties to my non-Romanian speaking self before rushing into the church. Are we in need of salvation? My driver and I are certainly searching. A woman clad in the bright floral headscarf typical of the region accompanies the driver from the church, gesticulating in all directions. We take off, but have to stop again for directions through this labyrinth. The driver exclaims and I see what has given him reason for confidence and relief. A wall, probably eight foot high, is ahead of us and on it is painted a large Star of David. With a big tip he leaves me, and I’m alone. It is completely still and silent. I guess this is what I was looking for.

**

Kishinev, Bessarabia, 1905. A part of the Russian Empire. Jews are permitted to live here. Permitted. It is an uneasy existence as a Jew in Kishinev: newspapers are openly anti-Semitic, restrictions bind Jewish life directing the whats and wheres and hows. Then, the tenuous permission is suspended.

**

I’ve had this madcap impulse to return to my family’s zero hour – where it all began – and say ‘thank you for leaving’ for as long as I’ve known their story. I realise the dodgy logic of this: “thanks for getting out of here. I just came back to say that”. To go there and say, yep, this is pretty grim. You made the right call, even if that call led to a life of dislocation, tragedy, otherness, hard, hard, hard work. If you hadn’t left, your descendants almost certainly would not exist.

So here I am. I’m in my grandfather’s birthplace. A city that has passed through Russian, then Soviet rule since his departure – the history noted in the change of its name from the Russian Kishinev to the Romanian Chisinau. But what seemed like a noble quest when I set off to visit Europe’s least visited country has now lost its romanticism. I feel a little bit daft, awaiting my emotional epiphany here in the silence on a beautiful summer’s day.

**

The Russian Empire in 1905 is a volatile place. 1905 is the beginning of the end. It could have been a sudden collapse, but the Tsar’s reforms assuaged the ferment enough for the end to drag on another twelve years. But in 1905 people are angry and uncertain and they turn upon the Jews. Violently. These attacks are called pogroms. There are many of them across the Russian Empire. But some of the very worst are in Kishinev. The attacks are ferocious. They are described as savage, as slaughter. The bodies pile in the streets. A family by the name of Barenboim decide that now might be a good time to leave.

**

I used to like to drink milk with my dinner. I was eating sausages at my father’s cousin’s house. I wanted milk with my dinner like I was used to, so Mum scooped me up with my plate and deposited me outside, in the furthest corner of the yard. Well this is odd, I thought, as I enjoyed my sausage and milk picnic, oblivious to the meaning behind my mother’s pragmatic solution of how to serve milk and meat together in a Kosher household.

I knew it was odd that I had a Zeda, not a Poppy or a Nonno or a Grandad. He was Russian, I’d say, proud of the exoticism. I was 9 when Zeda died. I was alone standing under a tree in a cemetery on a hot Brisbane day when over came the kind of family who say “you were just a baby when I last saw you! I bet you don’t remember me”. Sorry, my baby memory was pretty poor. Then: “Have you had your Bat Mitzvah yet?” Umm what? I mumbled that I didn’t know and they left me alone. I began panicking, am I not allowed here if I haven’t had a Bat Mitzvah? I remember seeing my brothers and father gripping their rarely-worn yarmulkes to their heads; eventually they borrowed hair pins from me. Tiny hats and bobby pins. Stones instead of flowers. Unfamiliar writing that apparently bore my name. Even decades later, I remember the tension I felt that someone so familiar to me was being farewelled in a way I did not understand, for if this was a part of him, it must be a part of me. And it was a part that I needed to know better. It was the reason us Barnbaums were here after all.

**

They fled, Yitzhak and Rivkah and their brood of small Barenboims. They fled from Kishinev to Harbin, China. How far. How impossibly far. They waited for certainty. They waited two years until some family were accepted by Argentina. They were accepted by Australia. How impossibly far. They boarded a boat for the bottom of the world, hoping that distance from home meant distance from persecution. They disembarked at Brisbane where their name was recorded as Barnbaum. How impossibly far.

**

How do you pay tribute to people who have been all but eradicated in a country that has no desire to remember they even existed? That’s what has brought us to the gate of Chisinau’s Jewish cemetery: a place so forgotten that one must be looking for it to even see it. In a city that once had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe, this is nearly all that is left of Jewish culture.

I knew it would be overgrown and in ruins – after all, the community that mourned those buried here exists in too small numbers to tend these graves – but this is like Jumanji. Vines clutch every tombstone. Wildflowers and trees grow unchecked. Paths are impossible to make out. I am in complete silence and completely alone. I am frozen by fear, by the surge of panic I feel facing how determinedly forgotten these people – my people? – are; of how scary and precarious the place looks. In a terrible way, it is incredibly beautiful. My earlier cynicism gives way to agonising sadness that all these people are so forgotten; that a community as large as this could disappear.

The day I left Australia I scuffed around in the garden looking for a rock worthy of travelling so many miles to be laid as tribute. A star rock, if you will. But, as it transpired, my garden was mysteriously bereft of stones with a certain je ne sais quoi so to Moldova I have carried a rather uninspiring collection of pebbles. Stones in Jewish culture represent the permanence of memory and I look for somewhere to place them (I’m awaiting the sort of divine intervention I don’t actually believe in to tell me where). By the rear wall of the caved in synagogue, I raise my camera. Through the view-finder I see something my eye couldn’t: a grave scarred by a swastika. I can see the graffiti has been scrubbed, but the paint clings to the engraved Hebrew words. It is on this grave that I leave my stones. I will not forget. You are not forgotten. This place is not forgotten.

**

This strange little family from a strange little country lived, as refugee families often do, a life of extremely hard work, sadness and a fair bit of confusion: like when their first enterprise was to grow pineapples, not knowing that the first crop takes some time to yield – more time than they had money to wait.

My Zeda lived until 92. I knew him as an elderly man who emanated kindness, patience and wisdom, and who was never without a book in his hands. A gentleness and intellectualism that belied a hard life doing hard manual labour. I know him through the beautiful furniture he made, that filled my grandparents’ house and now fills mine and my brother’s. All beautifully hand-tooled. All with secret compartments for hiding money for that next emergency. I feel a stab of pain for what horrific memories or fears he must have had to build those safe places. When we emptied the house after his death, we found thousands of dollars hidden over an entire lifetime. He just wanted to protect us, I guess. To know we’d be ok. So that’s what I said, kneeling with my hand on the cold, stone of a ruined synagogue in the middle of a forgotten Jewish cemetery in Europe’s least-visited country: it was worth it. We’re ok. We exist. And we remember.

 

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program. 

Massage Nightmares: Why I can’t be naked and silent

Massages are meant to be a wonderfully relaxing experience, but not if you’re me. Unfortunately, the promise of luxury causes me to forget my regular propensity to forget how to human. At first, a massage sounds like a fabulous idea. I trot eagerly into the spa at the appointed hour and am shown to a room. But suddenly, the imminence of nudity and proneness and silence renders me completely incapable of remaining in control of my mind and body and my usual high risk of awkwardness suddenly sky rockets, creating certainty that I will do something unusual, unexpected and uncomfortable.

The trigger is the instruction to disrobe and lie face down on the bed. The resultant capitulation into complete clown can be broken down into three distinct dilemmas (that in reality are whirling and colliding in my head as I panic, exacerbating the difficulty in any attempt to ‘act normal’). Let us observe these dilemmas in turn.

Internal Narrative of Dilemma 1: Shit, I’m being asked to disrobe. How ‘nakey’ do I get? Do they want bra off or do they want to do the modest unclip of bra so when I roll over there’s less ‘flashage’? I could ask but that might sound like I’m anxious and/or can’t undress myself and now they’ve left the room anyway. OH GOD THERE’S A PAIR OF DISPOSABLE KNICKERS. These never fit. It’s so dark in here I can’t get them out of the tiny packet. Surely it’s a fire hazard to attempt to disrobe and apply unfamiliar undergarments by candle light? “Are you done in there?” “Not quite!” Shit shit shit I’ve been in here too long, they’ll be wondering if I’m stuck (this has happened before). Ok, knickers are out of tiny packet and a rough assessment indicates they’ll possibly cover the good bits. Not like that time that I nearly had them in a respectable position and then tore them. Like, literally ripped them a new one. I had no idea what to do with a torn pair of disposable panties so I panicked and put my jocks back on and the torn pair over the top. I can’t explain this decision. And all I could then think about for the entire massage was how the therapist would be spending the entire massage wondering what the hell was wrong with me. Ok. Ridiculous pants on. Now to mount this table….

Internal Narrative of Dilemma 2: Now I’m naked in ridiculous pants and I’m looking at a very neatly towel-wrapped massage table. I can never work out exactly what they want me to do. I have ruled out just getting on up sans modesty throw: my naked self, shining like a moon through the candle-lit darkness would be far too alarming for the already perplexed therapist. So I have to do something with the towel. Early on, I tried to loosely wrap it around my body before climbing onto the table but, no matter how loosely I wrapped myself, by the time the therapist tried to access flesh it had turned into a tightly wrapped kebab and their attempt to remove my wrap would necessitate my raising and lowering my shoulders, torso and legs so that it looked like I was performing a particularly disjointed attempt at a nude worm. And then there was that time that this failed and I just had to get up, unwrap, and clamber back up under the disappointed and confused gaze of the therapist. Either way, soon will cometh the half-time roll, where I am expected to somehow demurely and modestly rotate my nude (again let me remind you that nudity sets me to auto-awkward) heft in the manner of an animal – perhaps a walrus? – on a spit, without undue flashing, without falling off a narrow bench and whilst covered in a slippery slick of massage oil. For now, I do the superhero – swirling the towel around my shoulders like a cape so that it covers only my back. One does have to hold this at the neck so that makes clambering up that touch harder…

Internal Narrative of Dilemma 3: Why oh why is the bed always too high! I acknowledge I am somewhat shorter than the average bear (in fact, I am close to the average height of the shortest bear) but the table always seems to be set to (my) chest height. It is so hard to clamber when nude (I feel the knowledge of being naked limits me physically) and towels have such little purchase. I should have checked the brakes were on first. One time they weren’t and the thrust of my mount caused me to sail – elegantly and spectacularly ­– across the room on my table, and crash into a counter of beauty accoutrements, the inertia of my impact causing crashing, rattling, flying hot wax and the great distress, alarm and – once again – disappointment of my therapist.

Ok I’m up. Head in hole. Now I wait in the darkness, and the relaxation can begin… while I worry about everything I can do to embarrass myself while lying here doing nothing.

 

The Power of Being ‘Not Like Other Girls’

Lately, it feels as though I am standing on the sun, so hot and furious the energy around me burns. It’s a positive energy. I am lit by it. I catch alight and pass the spark onwards. I have been set ablaze by realising the incredible power my friendships with women give me.

This championing of sisterly bonds is new. I was one of those girls who was not ‘one of those girls’. I would say this smugly. ‘Getting along with guys better’ was a lofty compliment – awarded only by the guys of course – that differentiated me from ‘most’ girls. Girls, said with a sneer. Girls, and their associations with vanity, bitchiness, vapidness. To not like other girls was to be not like other girls.

‘Getting along with guys better’ was code for being able to take a joke, being ‘chill’ – not getting emotional like ‘most’ girls who let menstruation get to their heads, being able to banter about cool music and sports results. I could be trusted to get close to the guys without swooning, unlike those ‘other’ needy, weak girls.

Starry-eyed that I’d been given the part I’d tried so hard for, I dutifully played the role through high-school: the girl who brushed misogyny away like crumbs. I think I did this because I subconsciously knew that being friends with the guys was one route to the safety and power that my gender deprived me of. I’d look across to the girls who were friends with girls and it all seemed precarious and dangerous. Difficult. So easy to be wrong-footed and punished with gossip and exile.

It seemed a strategic error, then, that I chose to move into a women’s residential college. Ahead of my move from a dry, isolated piece of Queensland to the overwhelming size and complexity of Brisbane, I inspected the various on-campus options. I was determined to live co-ed of course, I didn’t even get along with girls. But then I smelt the co-ed colleges – an unforgettable tang of stale sweat, unwashed clothes, cheap deodorant and stale beer – and compared the state of the bathrooms to those in the women’s college. It appeared that, for the sake of my comfort, I would have to start getting along with girls better.

By the time I’d finished at university, I’d forgotten about the infantile and simplistic divisions created by superficial assumptions of gender. I’d spent three years holed up in an incredible environment of women who nurtured and celebrated one another. I had moved to a new city, made friends with new people, built a wonderful, gender-diverse friendship group, but secretly still thought guys were a little less complicated than girls.

The truth hit me when I was watching Big Little Lies (the television drama adapted from Australian author Liane Moriaty’s book of the same name, with an incredible cast led by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, where a death at a primary school trivia night ignites rumour and suspicion amongst a glittering yet competitive social set). I happened upon the first episode and stayed to roll my eyes at another depiction of the lengths to which women will apparently go to compete (secretly enjoying the all too familiar biting social commentary we will provide on one another). Well, that’s what I thought the show was about. I think it’s spoiler-safe to say I was incredibly wrong. The murder becomes a side show for the exploration of each woman’s relationship with themselves, with each other and with the men – portrayed as pale, petty or predatory – who encircle them. By the end of the series, I realised that the apparent pettiness of women (which I knew was a side-effect of the stupid expectations and contradictions of a patriarchal society) by which we are so often distracted was no match for the gravity and resilience of the bond between women.

From this moment of awakening, examples of these bonds exploded in all around me. I found myself drunkenly clutching two friends in my hallway, red wine slipping from my hand, as we each affirmed our gratitude for one another and revealed we didn’t know how we could survive without each other’s support. I knew I felt nothing but love for their strength, beauty and talent. I quieted with awe when a friend asked me for help of the most serious kind, so grateful for her vulnerability, honesty, trust and bravery. So grateful for her. I cradled a sobbing friend to my heart knowing I was barely scratching the debt I owed to her for the same support. I blossomed with pride when I nervously sketched out a dream to a friend who listened with compassion and encouragement and incredibly intelligent advice, again thinking, wow – the women around me are amazing.

The friends who celebrate my achievements as though they were their own. Who see me and believe in me more than I can myself. I look around and saw that the foundations of my happiness and my strength are my female friendships.

I also think of the automatic embrace women will provide a female stranger, so bonded by our shared but unspoken stories of survival, protecting our bodies, dealing with being a freaking woman.

Women’s bathrooms become back stage dressing rooms where we let the costumes and makeup slip, revealing the actor behind the character. We cease coolly comparing ourselves in front of scanning male eyes. Instead, we create a sanctity of warmth and protection. I know from so many experiences the instant help that will be offered if you meekly ask strangers in a ladies’ bathroom for a tampon (given with an understanding and sympathetic smile), help with a tricky item of clothing, help getting away from a creepy guy, help getting over a humiliation, help getting home safely. I’ve asked for it as often as I’ve given it.

I realise that what seemed difficult when I was a teenager was precisely what could become complexity and depth by the time we became adults. I see now that groups of women vibrate an incredible power that was terrifying in its promise – something realised by men through history who have feared the spells or gossip (which is worse?) that these women could cast upon them.

I thought I was rejecting something superficial when I said I got along with guys better, but in fact I was just blindly following the tropes set up for me, tropes designed to break down our power by teaching us to distrust, compete and judge.

And so it is now that, with the wisdom gleaned from experience and awareness, I am finding my women. Quietly, stealthily. A resistance group reforming ancient connections that we abandoned when we began to twist ourselves into something men were comfortable with. In these spaces we create, we spark the most wonderful electricity. I’ve stopped defining myself as a woman in terms of how I am seen by men. I’m definitely not that ‘cool girl’ anymore who gets along with guys better. And because of it, I’ve found my power: my warrior women.

This article was originally published by Feminartsy as part of the writer’s residency program. 

A Capsule Collection for the Satirical Sartorialist

Every once in a while, Fashion’s gospels will dictate that one must have certain items in one’s armoire: essential capsule pieces worth investing in due to their timeless style and versatility. Undoubtedly, Fashion’s recommendations will drip with impracticality, expense and adjectives. Items of clothing will be oddly and impossibly rendered in singular form (for instance, ‘the perfectly tailored jean’). There will definitely be mention of ‘luxurious knits’, ‘expensive tailoring’, classic trenches, crisp cotton shirts… and oh god I can’t go on because the blandness is suffocating me. These items are the preserve of neat, clean people who eat colourless food and who have the presence of mind to iron. No matter how crisp the cotton shirt and how well-tailored the ‘pant’, if I’m in black and white I look as though I’m about to perform in a school band. So I reject the neutral palettes and practical versatility and offer instead my recommendations for MVP wardrobe items.

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My Super Mum and Her Super Foods

I am nearly 30 and my mother still cuts my fruit up for me. In this sentence is everything you need to know about our relationship. Indeed, it’s only twelve years since I discovered that mandarins came with pips in them. Mum used to carefully remove them before placing the fruit on the table. It wasn’t until I moved out of home that I discovered the horrible truth that I would have to extract my own mandarin seeds. That’s the first piece of background you’ll need today.

The second thing is that I am extremely petulant. When I’m told in hyperbolic extortions that I MUST watch [insert popular TV show here – yesterday it was The Wire] I instinctively reject the entire show (whilst simultaneously being so evangelical in my need to get everyone to watch Outlander that only my gender and lack of tie distinguishes me from Mormon proselytisers). My ego is so fragile that I want the discovery for myself, and the knowledge that my taste is a little outside the norm.

So combine extraordinary maternal devotion and a daughter’s petulance and you might go some way to understanding why I am nearly 30 and having regular arguments with my mother about not wanting to try new foods.

You see, my mother is on a quest to single-handedly cure my auto-immune disease. Growing up, our family debates demanded you brought peer-reviewed sources to accompany your statements. “I heard on morning television” would earn a red card straight away. Yet, when it comes to miracle foods, my mother – through a fog of love and hope – will take a punt on the word of everything from New Idea to New Scientist.

The foods I might have been happily eating one moment will become ruined the second I am told about their designation as a super food. That’s when I turn into a toddler.

Every couple of months, a whisper of incredible results! pain gone! cured! thanks to eating certain foods will reach my mother’s ears. From there, it is a very short trip to my fridge. It starts with carefully clipped columns earnestly pressed into my hands. Then starts the “you should eat…”, then little parcels mysteriously appear in my fridge.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of food that has elbowed its way into my fridge:

  • purple vegetables
  • apple cider vinegar
  • raw honey
  • kimchi
  • blueberries
  • kale
  • yoghurt
  • turmeric
  • ginger
  • fish oil (not capsules – which aren’t powerful enough, apparently – but oil that I was to drink which had lime flavouring that couldn’t possibly outstrip the horrible oily fish taste so just left the most vomit-inducing strong, acidic fish taste. And swallowing oil is awful)

Kimchi was my favourite.

Mum: I’ve just read about how wonderful kimchi is for inflammatory conditions

Naomi: yes, that’s because it’s a fermented vegetable and like sauerkraut (which I eat a lot of) it has pro-biotics that are good for gut health

Mum: (ignoring me) it’s fermented spiced vegetable dish…

Naomi: I know. I’ve had it often. In fact, I had it on my breakfast burrito last week.

Mum: … like a Korean sauerkraut.

Naomi: Dude. I know. This is not a mystery to me. I quite like kimchi.

Mum: SO I’VE PUT ONE KILO OF KIMCHI IN YOUR FRIDGE THAT YOU SHOULD ADD TO EVERY MEAL.

Naomi: I’m never eating kimchi again.

We are currently in the Age of Turmeric.

Mum’s efforts aren’t limited to food: every week I’m goaded to try meditation, try yoga, try mindfulness, try try try try. But every day I’m trying. Trying to get out of bed. Trying not to let pain and immobility and fatigue and sickness stop me from living. Trying to do all stretches/exercises/planning/resting that might mean I get through a day without collapse. Being told I should try harder, try more is soul-crushing.

My petulance is a protective mechanism against the fact that so far the only impact of a diet high in something has been mildly interesting wee. I need to not be disappointed every time something doesn’t work. If I were, I don’t know how I’d have survived nearly a decade of gradual declines, of failed trials. Not getting my hopes up is very different to giving up hope.

Mum knows this, but we continue to play our merry little game. Why? Because Mum is devoting to her cause – me – the energy, attention and positivity that I have lost. Because Mum is doing the hoping for two. Because I know her desperate attempts to do something are driven by the unbearable impotence of being unable to help. And, in return, to her I devote a grudging willingness to try. Even the bloody fish oil. Because I see her pain too, I see her efforts as the parcels of help and love that they are. Because I would do the same for her. Because one day they might decide that a nice shiraz and cured meat are the next cure for everything. Because I love her, and know she loves me.

And because I am nearly 30 and my mother still cuts up my fruit for me.

Breaking Up With My Past Self

To be given a diagnosis was a relief.

“Are you certain?” I asked.

There can be no doubt. The fusing of your sacroiliac joints is clear to see. She continued to discuss treatment but I was suspended in that moment of certainty, of being believed. For two years, as pain wracked my body, so severe that I would lie screaming silently to myself with hot tears leaking from clenched eyes, specialists had told me they couldn’t find anything wrong. I had taught myself to brace for further disappointment, yet here was an answer. An autoimmune disease, a form of arthritis. Connective tissue hardening and fusing my joints together. Ankylosing Spondylitis.  A word I’d always need to check the spelling of. But I was only 23. Now I had an answer I could resume living life.

**

Are you in pain now? My bikini waxer asked as she spread hot wax in my most intimate areas.

The answer was yes but the question wasn’t as daftly obvious as it appeared.

I am always in pain.

**

I could adopt a guise of normality at first: slamming back the pain killers at night to sleep, slamming back the double-shot espressos in the morning to rid myself of the druggy veil. But then the disease struck my most vulnerable spot. My body

Medications conspired with reduced activity to quickly dump thirty kilos onto my small frame. I was so enraged and humiliated by what my body had done to me: not only was it sabotaging me from within with fatigue and pain, now it was turning me into a grotesque joke.  It was a traitor and I hated it.

Women are taught that investing in your body with exercise and diet are signs of self-love. We are taught that our sexual appeal decreases as our size increases. Here I was, flabby, soft, bloated and married to an athlete. We chose each other when my fat was appropriately placed and thus considered ‘curves’. How could I believe his claim to find me attractive? Compounding this was the ever present duo: pain and fatigue. He wanted to help. He saw my agony and felt helpless. He wanted to hold me but the pain wouldn’t allow even a gentle touch. Our roles melted from lovers and partners to patient and carer.

**

Life is measured in numbers

Weight.

Income.

GPA.

Who am I now, if my identity cannot rest on the certainty of success that these numbers gave me?

**

The next blow was to my social life. A day at work left me too exhausted for midweek plans and weekends became closely protected and utterly necessary recovery periods where I yielded to the fatigue and sleep. If an invitation was accepted, odds were I’d need to cancel at the last minute – body winning over mind. If I went, I’d pay for it with days of pain and tiredness.

I became so guilty. I missed so many things. And so few friends understood. I could look so well. They didn’t see the collapse that followed. Many, many friends drifted away.  Those who didn’t, those who understood without being told, those who checked in with compassion, who never forgot me in my prison – those friends are my strength.

**

It feels like my spine is made of something rigid. Wood that I’m trying to coax – through stretches, through diet, through aggressive medications – into yielding and moving like the myriad bones in my back should. Around this wood I am tender, bruised, swollen. This is the pain that is my everyday – my normal – that makes me come across as though I’m always slightly pissed off about something.

Sometimes, the pain screams. A crescendo through my whole body, intensifying from dull ache to sickening shock. Pulse after pulse. A knife twists in my spine: cold, probing metal, finding bone, pushing further in, twisting.

I try to find reason when it’s like this. How did I bring this pain upon myself? Did I overdo it at work? Overdo it at play? Not exercise enough? Exercise too much? I won’t sleep. I won’t function. I sweep my diary clear as I brace myself for days of stubborn recuperation. I will pay for this ten times over.

**

My body is at war with itself. This is a truism of an auto-immune disease. But my body is also at war with my Self. I must resist starting each sentence with “I was”. I was a gymnast. I was a soccer player. I was thin. I was a pianist and a singer and a performer and a burst of energy and a friend and… I had ambition.

For three years I fought the reality that shoe-horning myself into the ‘normal’ professional environment was headed for disaster. I hated disappointing anyone – my colleagues, my bosses, my parents who were so proud of my academic and professional achievements. I was the type whose bedroom dripped with medals and trophies, whose life was propelled forwards by a singular drive to ‘do my very best’.

And here I was, starting each day with a plea that my body move (that’s step one) then begging the pain to recede. Then battling the constant fog of pain medication and heavy fatigue to do a job that relied on a quick and curious brain. I tried to keep going. Everyone tried to help me. But eventually, I just couldn’t be relied upon. With deep shame, I confronted my failure and my professional persona – so integral to my idea of who I was – collapsed.

**

I sit across from another version of myself. She looks cool and together, and her armour is cropped blazers and pearls and pencil skirts. This is it, she says. The dream, the pinnacle. And now you’re going to fuck it up because you can’t hack it? Do you know where I could go? Who I could be? What my life would be like? I am on the cusp of the world and you’re offering me a little life of brushing crumbs off my boobs.

Yup.

Who am I without this job though? Without the clothes? Without the comfortable descriptors? How do I explain my availability, my free time? What do I write in occupation when ‘inert t-shirt covered in food stains’ is how you propose I occupy my time?

I wave my hands vaguely. Alternate Naomi, with the vision and ambition and capability, slips through my fingers.

**

Over the years, because of the implications of my disease and medications, doctors asked when I might want children. I would pluck the number 28 from my arse – to defer the question as much as anything. It sounded suitably old: an age by which I would have established life on its awesome, adventurous trajectory and be ready to create monuments to my awesomeness in tiny human form.

It started well:

Career at 21.

Married at 23.

Owned a home at 24.

Then the wolf came and blew it all down.

Amidst wreckage, however, we have the opportunity to rebuild.

At 29, I am breaking up with who I was.

Like most relationship breakups, this one is drawn-out. I’ve been sitting in the wreckage for some time, trying patience and compassion and listening, instead of fighting. With tearing effort, I remind myself that Past Naomi wasn’t perfect: she hadn’t found her empathy or sensuality, her confidence or creativity. She was smart, but she didn’t have wisdom. I like these things about Now Naomi.

I have stopped fighting against the monstrous waves that have battered my body and mind for eight years. I have stopped thinking that mimicking an idealised, created version of myself is proof I am doing ok. It is the opposite. I have said, ok enough. I can’t do it anymore. I don’t want to do it anymore. I cannot fight against my disease – against my Self – anymore. I know what I can’t do. Now I just have to nurture what I can do. For the first time in a long time, I’m growing again.

This article was originally commissioned and published by Feminartsy