James Brown sang ‘this is a man’s world’ but in this time of Covid-19, I truly believe that we are now living in an introvert’s world. And about time, I say. As a life-long (and proud) introvert, I am enjoying the fact that millions of people across the world have been forced to slow down, to down tools, to sit on the couch on a Friday night and to, just be.
In a text message this week, a friend asked me how I was coping. Thinking about it, I realised that I am coping rather well with staying home and not going out. It’s not that I don’t enjoy going out and seeing other human beings (I’m not a complete hermit…), however, I’ve always needed a balance between social interaction and time alone. In my teens and twenties, I felt deeply embarrassed by this. I always felt that I needed to be partying more, to be meeting more people, to be ‘louder’. I even sought out counselling for this because I really did perceive my introversion as a flaw. I thought it was something I needed to be ‘cured’ of, as if my need for quiet contemplation and solitude were a disease.
In more recent years, I have accepted my need to recalibrate after being around lots of people, to just sit with my thoughts, to take a break from the incessant chatter of the world. Writers such as Susan Cain and Emily White with their insightful (and I must say, hugely reassuring) books on introversion have helped me enormously in accepting that there is actually nothing wrong with me, that in fact, being an introvert is a gift, that having the capacity to spend time alone and enjoy it, to draw spiritual sustenance from it, is something that extroverts lack.
So, if we are to look for silver linings in this time of uncertainty and forced down time, I think that the next few months could become a beautiful time to teach us more about ourselves as human beings. A time to reflect on the ways that we perceive each other and to accept each other in all our beautiful (and quiet) variety.
Dulcie looked down at her wrinkled, sun spotted hand and the bare middle finger where the ring had been since her eighteenth year. She felt empty. How could the ring have gone so suddenly? Dulcie racked her brain, retracing mentally the shops she had been to earlier that day. Did it slip off at the pharmacy when she went to refill her scripts or had it fallen off in the frozen food aisle as she reached into the cabinet for a bag of peas? Yes, that must have been where it happened! Panic flooded her as she imagined the topaz ring nestled amongst bags of frozen baby corn and steam-in-the bag broccoli. The irony she thought to herself. Bill had always hated broccoli.
The ring was the first serious gift Bill had ever given to her. Courting during a summer shared with a world war had heightened the intensity of first love. Dulcie remembered the days spent at the beach, the heat of the sun relieved only by the dash into the foamy waves, the water cool on pink skin. Nights spent at the pictures, watching the news reel at the start of the film and always silently praying for the boys overseas especially for her Bill.
Bill had given her the topaz ring after a Sunday lunch at her parents’ house, the old weatherboard cottage she’d been born in on Livingstone Street. The taste of her mother’s roast lamb and baked potatoes still lingered deliciously in her mouth as she and Bill walked into the back garden. Nervously clearing his throat, Bill had pulled from his trouser pocket a red velvet ring box.
Tonight I could have made a movie montage of my trip home from work. Rather than catching the train home, I decide to take the bus from the eastern suburbs where I work to the inner west where I live.
Sydney on a rainy February evening. My senses are heightened by the late summer humidity. First down Oxford Street into Paddington. Past the Chauvel and the Barracks. The bus stops near the Beauchamp (the Bee-cham); passengers getting on and off. A woman waits for the back door to open. She calls out “back door” in an American accent but the driver seems not to hear. Another passenger tries to help and also calls out “back door”. The driver oblivious closes the front door ready to drive on. A handsome, suited man with slicked back hair the colour of straw moves quickly to the driver’s compartment. The back door suddenly opens. Commuters going home. Through Taylor Square, Kinselas a reminder that there is life after death (it was once a funeral parlour). Darlinghurst decked out in rainbows ready for Mardi Gras. Stonewall and sex shops, feather boas for sale. An ageing man farewells charismatically to a woman seated on the bus stop bench. She smiles generously, acknowledging his chivalrous performance. I wonder if she actually knows him. Round the corner onto Crown Street. Ah, this is where it all began! Street of my birth. It says ‘Surry Hills’ on my birth certificate but Dad always insisted that it was Darlinghurst. Turns out he was right (old snob). Bars, restaurants, Wheels and Dollbaby. Muggy, late summer air. Terraces and green vines snaking up cracked walls. Lovers eating pizza in Dimitri’s (‘since 1975’). On past the Clock Hotel, post-work drinks on the balcony. Locals on the basketball court dressed in street gear, an antipodean version of NYC.
Onto Cleveland, the old workhorse. Past Murder Mall and the petrol station. The Lebanese restaurants. Traffic is slow; it’s peak hour. Having to slow down means I see so much more. Run-down cottages in Chippendale; faded Tibetan prayer flags strung across front patios. A woman with an Eckersley’s bag gets off. Her funky black jumpsuit catches my eye. I write a five second narrative in my head about her and decide she’s an artist looking for her big break. The Rose and the Seymour. I hungrily scan the posters for what’s on. Victoria Park, once plains where kangaroos roamed. The green shelves of books in the Architecture Library. Sydney University so different from when I was a student. The faint tugs of memories as the bus passes Wentworth. A young muso gets on carrying a cased guitar. Black cut off t-shirt; fashionable mullet hair. Arms and fingers tattooed. He is beautiful. His blue eyes catch the light. I long to be that young again. I wonder if it is possible in middle age to love so passionately as young lovers do. I never had a rock musician boyfriend. The bus drives on. Students in a group walk past the Economics building, looking like they’re at the start of a pub crawl. Students in a dormitory kitchen cooking dinner ( the large window means they’re weirdly on display to all who pass by).
Newtown – Gould’s. A sign announces it will soon reopen as a ‘communal space’. Whatever that means… I imagine gentrified hipsters ruining the place. King Street; more slow moving traffic. The variety of clothing; people not afraid to express themselves. I admire a young woman with short cropped bleached blonde hair. I fantasise about cutting off all my hair. I want that freedom. Artisan vegan gelato and rose quartz. South King Street, the performing arts school, the Greek church. Vintage shops, vintage shops, vintage shops. My old hair salon run by an English punk who was so paradoxically gentle. The theatre, the plant nursery. I’m the only person left on the bus. I’m making it home; I’m getting there. Sydney is my home; I feel like I belong; I’ve seen my narrative tonight written in the sandstone, the shop windows, the close summer air. I’m part of this. My story is here.
I am wearing a corset as I type this. It is a Friday evening and I am dressed to attend a masquerade ball. It is such a new and curious feeling that I pause, before going out, to record the sensation before it disappears. It’s an underbust corset with pinstripe fabric. It would be the perfect steampunk outfit but I have no boots or goggles. At the moment, I look like a cross between saloon barmaid and 1940s vamp.
It is a rather sexual feeling to wear a corset. You have to walk with mincing, dainty steps – no running for the bus with this on! Your hips sashay from side to side as you move. You are at all times aware of your physical body. It’s no where near as uncomfortable as I had imagined it might be. And I feel somewhat guilty about this as I have always seen the corset as something that was invented to restrict women and that it has a much vilified history. I can see how it is good for people with scoliosis and posture issues as you have no other choice but to sit very straight and upright. I usually slouch so it’s a useful piece of clothing for me. It’s incredible to see myself with such a defined waist. Genetically, I am lacking in a waist so it’s a delight to see my outline so changed. Siri Hustvedt in her 2006 essay Pulling power says that the corset helped to ‘create the notion of femininity.’ I feel wearing corset that I can finally fulfil this notion. The corset is an example of how we use clothing to gender ourselves. In her essay, Hustvedt states that: ‘But the feeling of a corset is only part of its effect. Like all clothing, it is, more than anything else, an idea. In this case it promotes an idea of a woman’s body as radically different from a man’s.’ This makes me think of those bald babies made ‘girls’ by the addition of a ribbon or bow on their downy heads.
I have also seemingly grown breasts. As Hustvedt says, ‘The corset takes the difference between men and women and runs wild with it. The inward slope of a woman’s waist becomes extreme, and the tension of lacing the waist pushes the breasts upward. Suddenly I had new breasts.’ As a fifteen year old, I watched enviously the heaving, corseted breasts of Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Decades later I now look in the mirror and marvel at the transformation that has occurred. Later at the masquerade ball, my friend jokes that she can’t take her eyes off my ‘boobs’. I am finally Lizzy even if only for a night.
The potential for clothes to transform is limitless. Hustvedt alludes to this when she writes: ‘In the end, wearing clothes is an act of the imagination, an invention of self, a fiction.’ As my friends and I wait for a taxi to take us to the ball, I allow myself to slip into an alternate persona, someone, something radically divorced from my day to day self. As we dance at the party, we can finally embody the dreams and fantasies of self that our costumes have articulated for us.
Have you experienced transformation through a particular piece of clothing?
Apparently, T.S. Eliot never married the ‘love of his life.’ Her name was Emily Hale. Yet he wrote this beautiful line about his second wife: ‘Lovers whose bodies smell of each other.’
I suppose that’s what love is – no longer knowing where you begin and end because you have now merged into a new space of being. Where does love begin and end? It doesn’t. Love is infinite; it defies boundaries and limits.
My name is Claire and I’ve always been intrigued by monkeys. I was born in the Year of the Monkey, my favourite novel is called Monkey Grip, I once had a monkey thrown on to my shoulder in a market in Morocco and, of course, those playful chimps are our long lost ancestors… So, it really didn’t take much time for me to create a title for my blog. We’re all in the grip of a monkey really. Whether that is the grip of love, passion, addiction, frustration, regret. We’ve all felt that proverbial monkey on our shoulder or struggled to break free of its iron grasp.
I want to share my writing with others (I assure you it’s not all about monkeys…) and so this blog is my avenue to start doing so. There’ll be short story, essay, memoir and musings du jour and anything else that I’ve been thinking about of late. Joan Didion said: ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ For me, I write in order to live, to continue to understand my place in this world and feed that insatiable jungle dweller.