‘…how can man “know himself”? He is a thing obscure and veiled: if the hare have seven skins, man can cast from him seventy times seven, and yet will not be able to say “Here art thou in very truth; this is outer shell no more.” Also this digging into one’s self, this straight, violent descent into the pit of one’s being, is a troublesome and dangerous business to start. A man may easily take such hurt, that no physician can heal him.’
–from Schopenhauer as Educator by Friedrich Nietzsche.

 

One recent morning as I was trying desperately to leave the house for work, shouting at the kids to get their jackets bags shoes on. I ran back to the bedroom to grab my watch, scanned the dresser for it and was brought to a halt by a sharp stench. I smelt shit. Cat shit.

This was not the first time our elderly blind cat had toileted under the bed so I immediately knew what the foul smell was. She did it one Saturday a few weeks ago when David and I were sitting in bed, drinking tea and reading. She walked into the bedroom, gave a doleful moan of a meow to announce herself, crawled under the bed and squatted. I couldn’t hear the piss hitting my yoga mat, stored under the bed, but as soon as I could smell the pungent ammonia which seemed to be rising in waves, like heat rises off the road in summer, my mind’s eye could also see how the piss pooled and ran along the folds of the mat to spill onto the wooden boards beneath. I leapt out of bed to stop her, to stop the piss from running everywhere. My lie-in was ruined. My mood, instantly vile.

Since that morning we’d tried to get into the habit of closing the bedroom door. Keep the cat out. If it looked like she was in an urgent way, sniffing here and there around the bathroom door and around our bedroom door, I put her outside. I couldn’t handle the thought of a kitty litter tray inside. It’s only a few years since we’d gotten away from children in nappies, surely the cat could look after her own needs? But no, the cat could not. And now I’d forgotten to shut the door and she had done five stinky logs and pissed on one of the overnight bags we also kept under the bed.

I ran down the hall, the bag dripping piss on the wooden boards as I went, opened the back door and threw the overnight bag outside. Then I grabbed the cat who was sitting in the morning sun contentedly cleaning her paws. I picked her up and put her blind elderly cat nose right up to her shit, which had rolled off the bag when I’d thrown it and lay on the concrete path just outside our door. The children watched with interest.

‘What’s that?’ the smallest said, pointing at the shit.

‘Cat shit,’ I said.

‘Don’t say shit, Mummy,’ said the eldest. The youngest tittered.

‘Sorry. It’s poo, it’s cat poo,’ I said.

‘Why is it on my bag?’ said the youngest.

‘It’s my bag too,’ said the eldest.

‘Stormy did it there,’ I said. ‘She…’ I wanted to explain why she did it on their overnight bag, but I couldn’t because I didn’t know why.

‘Ewww,’ said the youngest, and started to do some fake crying.

‘Please don’t make that noise,’ I said. I was, by this time, quite frustrated and couldn’t handle the fake-crying child. ‘I’m going to clean it up.’

The cat was outside now and I shut the door on her and locked her cat door so she couldn’t get back in. I cleaned up the mess, wrote a note to David telling him not, under any circumstance, to let the cat in. Then we left for the day, the kids and me. The cat was locked outside.

When I got home the cat was once again inside. David said it was too cold for her to be outside all day, she didn’t know what she was doing, she was an elderly cat, couldn’t we just take more care and shut the bedroom door? I looked for the rage I’d felt in the morning, found the residue and put the cat outside again. I could close the bedroom door, but the cat must pay.

Half an hour later, my pity for the old cat, and a slow growing shame at what I’d done crawled in and replaced my rage. I opened the door for her. She sat at the top of the hall facing down towards the bedroom. I made a noise deep in my throat and growled at her. She turned and walked away from me.

Part of my ‘punishment’ to the cat was to shame her—to put her face close up to her own shit, and to growl at her, and to make her sit outside the family home. I don’t know whether the cat was actually ashamed. In a way, her reaction is unimportant. What mattered, in the heat of the moment, was that my anger at her adding to my jobs to do before I left the house, my disgust at the shit and smell in my bedroom, and my dismay that she be doing this to us (yes to us, not to herself) after 13 years of care—all this needed to be answered. I wanted to shame the cat, but the consequence of my reaction meant I was feeling ashamed of myself.

The rational part of me knows that what I did to her, to punish her, is wrongheaded, with an edge of cruelty, and will not change her behavior. She is an old cat, she is blind, the outdoors probably frightens her—it’s cold and she can only feel her way around our garden. She knows our garden because she’s lived there most of her sighted life, but still. What I did to her I did because I was angry and wanted to take my anger out on her, to offload it, and my immediate reaction (aside from physical torment or torture, which even I won’t do) was to shame her.

My reaction was thoughtless, indeed, reactionary. I was acting out a learnt behavior, one that goes all the way back to my own childhood, to the ways in which I was punished for my own ‘naughty behaviour’. When I was small I was hit for ‘being naughty’; this was how children were punished back then. Punishment was physical and often involved the wooden spoon. The wooden spoon was broken against my tender backside a few times. There was something subversively wonderful if my butt managed to break the wooden handle. It hurt, but it was almost worth it to ruin the implement that hurt me so. I would then be ‘told off’ and asked to think about my actions. Did the person doing the hitting, my mother, feel ashamed as I did, after the cat shit incident; as I do after yelling with anger at my own children for things they do that displease me?

After being hit, I would be embarrassed, sometimes I would feel guilt for having done what I’d done; I would be ashamed. Clinical psychologist Gershen Kaufman wrote a book I’m reading in an attempt to understand what I’m doing, why it is I’m writing this down. Kaufman’s book is called The Psychology of Shame. He believes that feelings such as guilt and embarrassment arise out of shame. Kaufman argues that shame is the home base of many negative ‘affects’ such as guilt, self-consciousness, embarrassment, shyness, discouragement, a sense of failure and of inferiority. These are feelings in themselves, but they all arise out of and can be traced back to the base affect of shame. When I was hit with the wooden spoon the intention was perhaps to shame me, to make me feel that I would not repeat the ‘naughty behaviour’.

I disagree with physical punishment. I think that hitting children shows a lack of control, it does nothing to help the child understand why what they’ve done is wrong and why they shouldn’t do it and it makes a child fear the adult who is supposed to protect and love them. But shame is important in development. It is part of how we learn to control our behavior. Kaufman writes that, ‘Shame plays a vital role in the development of conscience. By alerting us to misconduct or wrong doing—to transgression in whatever form—shame motivates necessary self-correcting.’

Self-correction; isn’t that what we want our children to learn? And our cats? But there’s a point at which shame overwhelms the self, and becomes problematic.

I lied. I wrote that I discovered the cat shit after I went back into the bedroom to get my watch. This is a detail about which only David would know the truth, and even then, he probably wouldn’t notice. My watch will always be found in the shelf above the kitchen sink, where I place it carefully after I take it off to wash the dishes. Most nights I do the dishes because David does most of the cooking. If you cook you don’t have to wash up, that’s our rule.

My watch was my grandfather’s. My father gave it to me. It’s a ‘gold’ watch, a Certina automatic Club 2000, inscribed on the back: ‘Presented to H.E. McDougall 30 Yrs Service Caltex Oil (NZ) Limited.’ (Why was it necessary for them to inscribe ‘limited’? What kind of pedant inscribed that on this watch?) I know exactly where I put the watch. I’m careful with it.

The real reason I went back to the bedroom where upon I discovered the cat shit, was to spray some more hairspray in my hair. It was flat and greasy, and I hadn’t bothered to wash it and I was hopeful that some hairspray might mask the way it looked. I’d already sprayed it, but I wanted to spray it some more. There was no point to the hairspray as I was about to put on my bike helmet and ride for thirty sweaty minutes to work. But I did it anyway.

So why did I lie and say that I went back to the bedroom to get my watch?

Vanity. My own shame about vanity. Shame about the greasiness of my hair, as if the production of sebum in my scalp, the way it darkened the strands and made them lie flat against my head, said something of my own human weakness. A line in a Geoff Cochrane poem got seared into my brain when I first read it: ‘Odours of sebum and dust. The couch’s fabric had a bummy, sebaceous smell.’ My hair is oily, unwashed, bummy. By not washing it I show my own decay, I reveal my own base animal smell. I see my unwashed hair as ugly hair. God forbid I be seen as ugly. Ugly people with greasy hair should cover their heads and hide their faces—no one wants to see them.

This is why I lied about the watch and the hairspray. There is a façade I must keep up; a well-groomed elegance, an ironed shirt, clean hair, rimmed eyes, a hint of blush on the cheek, of red in the lip. I craft myself, as much as—no, more—than I attempt to craft my writing. Strangely, I would let writing slip before I’d ever let my appearance ‘go’. I can almost hear the woman who says, in a voice that sounds just like my mother, a hand held to the mouth, the tone lowered, ‘She’s really let herself go.’ Where? I want to ask. To where did she let her self go?

How vain I am. How deep my shame lives within me. How, despite my demands for honesty, my distain of fakery in other people and in things, my reading and learning, my almost forty years of living, I am wedded to artifice—to creating a wall to hide my shame behind. I am a cut and pasted work of fiction.

I should like to imagine that the candlelight of my real self is flickering in an underground cave, but this would be to suppose the self as an unchanging thing, a lump of wax slowly melting, a wick long enough to last a lifetime—but easy enough to snuff out given a stray air current, pinched fingers, a breath. While it burns it lights up the marks on the wall of the cave, made by the hands of early humans 27,000 years ago. Those spirit animals move and change in the flickering light—bison charge, elk leap on the walls.

It is hard to bring the real self into view—we turn to metaphor, to fiction, for such tasks—we are forced to use artifice and craft. How contradictory we are! Art to expose our fictive selves, metaphor to dig beyond that self in our attempts to find what is real.

If the core of the self is a small candle, to bring this out of the cave would be to diminish its light under the sun’s brilliant rays. It would be dangerous. It is best it stays out of the wind and rain, in the sheltered climate of the cave, no human breath to atrophy the paintings it lights, no breath to accidentally or purposely blow the flame out. I’m not content to leave it alone though. I pace the tunnel outside the cave.

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