Monday, February 22, 2010

Ya gotta have faith. I gotta have fayy-aith

I am avowedly not religious. I live two doors down from a church, I was raised a catholic (albeit in a very liberalist tradition) and chose to attend a Catholic girls' school for the last two years of my high schooling when my mum supported my choice to move to pretty much any school I chose. I had Patrick baptised by my Uncle, who also married us, again in a Catholic church (My Uncle M is the kind of Catholic priest in regular strife with Cardinal Pell, of which I am inordinatley proud). But I'm not religious.

That is to say, I don't follow any particular religious doctrines or teachings. But for someone who discovered atheism at my year 12 retreat (meant to be a time to increase your spirituality), I do a lot of thinking about ... well, God, I suppose. "Source" could be a better word. Part of me just doesn't want to believe that there is nothing other than the physical world that is just the sum of so many atoms and subatomic energies/particles (damn' you quantum physics and Heisenberg for not allowing me to find a more prosaic way of expressing that). Part of me wants to believe.

But religion can be so divisive. I was listening to this on the radio today and I found this one of the most compelling statements of all that Rabbi Brad Hirschfield had to say : 

"...September 11th 2001, when I felt the full force of religious fanaticism come storming home to America, and knew as I watched those planes fly into the buildings "Only religion can do that". And I really mean it's religion, it happened to be Islam that day, but I felt it so acutely as religion, because I had been a religious fanatic, and felt the seduction of faith that makes violence ok; not just necessary, but really OK..."

and I thought- he's right- the most, the biggest atrocities are perpetrated because of religion; suicide bombers don't do it for the money or the fame. The so-called 'War on Terror' is the war of one fundamentalism on another, and the belief that only one way can be right. (Brad Hirschfield's book is called You Don't Have to be Wrong for me to be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism, and I want to read it!). And, after all my big long rant about how terrible my mum is, I find that the lovely Erin is subject to the kind of blinding religious fundamentalism that makes me not want to believe in God at all (and I felt so bad for raving about my really, rather normal family after reading her story of what her family did).

I spend much time trying to put together a picture of what I want to believe that isn't just a watered down, new-age, 'pick and choose' version of the catholicism I grew up with. If I have a faith I want it to be the kind I can defend intellectually, and that is probably the reason I have stuck with Catholicism for so long: my experience of religious scholarship was initially all about what I learned at school, tempered by my understanding of things like liberation theology* and my mum introducing me to Shelby Spong's Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, especially its revelations about the virgin birth (my number one problem with Christianity). If I defend my religious beliefs I want them to be intellectually sound, for the same reason I gave up religion in the first place: St Augustine's proofs always seemed shaky to me.

I get my 'inspiration'- for want of a better word- from all sorts of places: from Regina Spektor singing "No-one laughs at God in a hospital, No-one laughs at God in a war... we're all laughing with God" to my weekly fix of The Spirit of Things, to the Mormons knocking at the door and arguing with them for an hour (and them writing down authors I suggest) about religion vs spirituality. I'm currently (trying to) read The Pagan Christ by Tom Harpur and Jesus for the Non-Religious by John Shelby Spong. That's my kind of thing.

But, yet again, I have no answers. I don't really know what to believe. But I also don't want to be wishy-washy about it; because one thing is for certain- faith takes energy. But if I don't know what to believe, how can I have that faith?

*When I was a prefect at my all-girls Catholic school in year 12, I also studied comparative religion at a university-entrance standard. One day our homeroom teacher, who was also the school principal, was explaining how the money we had raised at our school fete was going to help the nuns of her order in the Phillippines buy back the land of indentured peasants and establish co-ops for them to sell their produce through. I put up my hand and said "So, Sister Anna (not her real name), what we are doing is helping the peasant workers own their means of production?"
"Umm, yes, Jenny, we are" 
"Wow, Sister, so if we're helping the workers own the means of production, isn't that like Liberation Theology? Like Socialism, almost?"
"NO! It's nothing like Socialism! What are you talking about?!"
"Well, if the workers own the means of production, isn't that Socialism? I mean, like, by definition?"
"NO! Socialism's nothing like that, we're just helping the peasants not have to sell their produce through a third party. So they can have their own little...."
"Yes, Co-operative. That's what it is. Not ANYTHING like socialism."
But she looked confused for the rest of the lesson. And I looked smug. And everyone else had no idea what thay was all about.

Monday, February 08, 2010

A giant turd of a tale


I wrote some of this post a few weeks ago and things have changed a little, but I'll reproduce it in its entirety, then update. I sometimes think the process of putting what I feel down on either paper or electrons is part of the therapeutic process as I often feel better after having written about how crap I'm feeling. I think that putting into words what I'm feeling helps me to see through the issue with a bit more clarity.


"Yesterday whilst I was swimming for the first time in several weeks that wasn't f the "come on now let's jump the waves... whee!" variety, I had a good, long think. And it wasn't pretty.

Mothers. Who'd have them?

Since Ollie started solids at 6 months, he has been very very constipated. We have been blessed with a baby that poos at most once or twice a week, and whilst he was exclusively breastfed, that wasn't an issue. But now he's on solids, it is a big problem. He still poos only once or twice a week (normally Thursday, oddly enough- now known as Turd-day) but now his poo is hard. And he has wound up with an anal fissure: a tear in the anal verge. While that is painful enough by itself, once you have a fissure, you hold onto your poo, which only compacts it more, making it harder and harder to pass, so that when your arse is so chock-a-block of poo that it HAS to come out, you have poo the consistency of travertine marble and the size of macadamia nuts. Painful. And only makes the fissure worse.

So what does this have to do with my comment about mothers? I'm getting there.

When we were away for Christmas, Ollie did not sleep well. He was horribly constipated with fissures, despite an exclusive diet of breastmilk, prunes and stewed pears and liberal use of glycerol suppositories. Every time he farted, it hurt. And when you're only 8 months old and have only ever known breastmilk for comfort, that means you wake up your mother every time you fart. Which was, generally, hourly.

Thusly, I was not a happy camperfor the entire time we were away.

My mother - an otherwise kindly, considerate person, would make comments like "You're not the ONLY person ever to be sleep deprived" and "I've brought up four children, you know" and generally being very VERY unsympathetic. (No, she didn't offer to look after him so I could have one good night's sleep). Then there was the bite incident- whilst at lunch for my dad's 70th birthday, my nephew (9) was bitten on the neck by... something. We don't know what it was, but it was obviously painful. At the time, I was sitting next to him but was holding Oliver, so my mother 'came to the rescue' asking for some ice from the waitstaff. She then proceeded to make a point of making fun of my response by saying "Thank god we had a NURSE nearby to look after him" and various othr jibes. Ok, Mum, I get it, you reacted before I did, but, to be honest, I was waiting for an anaphylaxis or at least some good wheezing to do anything. I'm not a GP, a first aid-er- I'm a critical care specialist, and I deal best with life-threatening emergencies: I was estimating his weight by age, calculating a dose in micrograms per kilogram of adrenaline, wondering if anyone nearby had an epipen anyway, and whether epipens have single dose delivery systems or if they can be titrated. And all that. And if he had had a severe reaction, I'm sure my mum would have been the first to panic, because that's what she does. I've seen it.

The whole point is, while I was swimming I was thinking about my relationship with my mum. Generally it is a good relationship, but since Patrick was born it has been troubled. I want my mum to be my mum, and grandma to my boys, not a full-time "what you are doing wrong" instructor. Which it tends to be. I know all daughters have to put up with a bit of 'constructive advice' from their mothers when it comes to child-rearing, but my mum is also a child health nurse, and she sees it as her 'professional duty' (and, yes, she has used those actual words) to dispense unsolicited advice on how I raise my boys. And just because that isn't enough, she loves to play the 'doctor-nurse game': for the uninitiated this is basically a pissing competition between (generally junior) doctors and (generally senior) nurses to see who gets the closest to a diagnosis or correct course of treatment. It involves much passive-aggressiveness on the part of the nurses ('so you want me to do saline dressings? three times a day?'), and just plain aggressiveness on the part of the doctor ('just, please do as I ask!'). It basically involves the nurse thinking (not without justification) they know the best for the patient because they spend more time with them, and the doctor thinking they know the best because they saw a Cochrane review of the subject.

Finally, she loves to throw in the "I've had FOUR children, and I had no help either" and she pulls out this stop when I'm at my lowest ebb.

No wonder I feel like an inadequate mother. Seriously.

Her advice, sadly, is often dated, and poor medicine, with no science behind it. And she gets very, VERY defensive when I try to help update her. For example, she insists that if I eat foods that are laxative, I will pass this on to Ollie in the breastmilk. The problem with this argument is that the reason most laxative foods are laxative, are because they aren't absorbed in the gut, and help water stay in the solid waste and, well, do their thing, so there is NO WAY IN HELL they're going to get to Ollie.

And then what happens is I get sad about the absolute fallibility of my mum: the fact that she is getting old, that she DOES have weaknesses and I feel sad that she is not all that she thinks she is OR that my mum, my wonderful, smart, funny, loving mother (with whom I share no small portion of personality traits) is not the person I think she was. She's also ageing, flawed and mortal. And I feel bad for being mad at her because she is only, really, trying to help in the only way she knows how. Because, after all, I am sure she still looks at me and sees her last baby, not a grown woman with children of her own.

Then I wonder: what will my boys think of me? What will MY legacy be? If I were to be hit by a bit of falling space junk tomorrow, how would Patrick remember me? What would I want him to know about me?

Mixed up in those thoughts is the little bit of sadness about the fact that the relationship that mothers have with their sons is not the same as the one between mothers and their daughters. And the most I can ever hope to be is a mother-in-law. And that's a whole 'nother drama.

Don't get me wrong; I love my little boys to BITS. I'm not at all sad that they are boys and not girls. Yes, to be honest, I was initially hoping for a Sophie and not an Oliver, but now I wouldn't have it any other way, because !brothers! growing up together!- the closer bond they may have tahn brother and sister just fills me with absolute, pure joy. I'm not denigrating the brother-sister bond, either: I have two amazing brothers (as well as a sister) and MrT has two lovely sisters and I relish and celebrate that tie, but there is something about the closeness of doing... stuff... together as young adults of the same gender that just makes me so happy about their shared future.


Whilst I'm in a confessional mood, I'll confess that the Christmas period also got me down about my dad, too. As I said earlier it was his 70th birthday while we were away. A short number of years back, Dad lost a significant amount of weight. For the first time in my memory, Dad was fit and healthy.

He has put most of it back on, and is as unfit as hell. My dad's family and personal history is poor when it comes to cardiovascular morbidity. Bottom line- I don't think Dad will make it to 80.

I know 10 years is a long time, but it's a reminder of your own mortality when you think of your parents not being around. And it's not like Dda is a 'young' 70 either. He is increasingly deaf, lazy, idle and set in his ways. Surrounded by his five grandchildren basically for the first time ever, Dad spent most of his time sitting in a chair, reading to himself. Right next to them. The kids quickly learned to ask any other adult nearby to help them, because Dad would fob them off "Poppy's just having a rest" (was he ever not having a rest?).

But there was something even more alarming I noticed about my dad.

He was having trouble following complex instructions. He has a tendancy to overlook things beyond pure domestic blindness. He gets frustrated very easily. He has very labile emotions (that is, he goes from happy to sad very quickly). Most alarmingly, he confabulates- that is, he unconsciously invents little stories to cover gaps in his knowledge like I've never seen before, in an order above just "Dad fact" -ness. This is not just 'bluffing', but real, fixed false beliefs- he actually believes the little stories he makes up. He often misses important details and then confabulates to cove it up. My Dad's brain is... how to put it? Slowing down? In decline? Not working well? I'm no neurologist, but I know what I'm seeing. And that. Is INCREDIBLY sad.

My Dad has been a brilliant man. He won a scholarship to study Law at melbourne University- the most prestigious law school in Australia. He was the first in his entire genealogy to finish a degree. He had a meteoric rise through the public service in the days when being a catholic in Canberra was a sentence to a mid-level manager's glass ceiling. He was an excellent public speaker and debater. He was instrumental in drafting law that changed this nation. He helped rewrite many of the laws of the state in which we later lived, and was often a maverick in the close, conservative, local legal fraternity. He embraced affirmative action, advanced the causes of minorities, and was forward thinking on a level that belies his conservative upbringing.

So, the decline, whilst gradual, to me is incredibly sad. My sons will never know Grandpop as the funny, lively wit he was, nor the father I remember helping ME jump the waves, or throw me high in the water to splash down in a laughing heap, teaching me to use power tools or mow the lawn, listening to my debating arguments and correcting my use of grammar. If they do have memories of him, most likely it will be of him sitting passively in a chair.

I wish I had a nice way to sum this up, to tie the ends together, to show what I have learned from the exercise. But the reason I'm typing this now is that although I have put it down, it still makes no sense. I can't work through this yet. It is all still too raw.