I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Excruciatingly Personal Blog Post No.3

The first stage is always the hardest. I'm struggling to climb up a steep hill which is covered in boulders of grey stone. They're loose, and keep tumbling down. Eventually I'm able to get higher, where the ground levels out a bit, where the stones stop sliding, and where tufts of grass start appearing between the rocks. Another effort of will, and I'm further on, where the ground is covered in grass so I can walk barefoot. A month or so later, I look up in surprise one day and see a tree, like a small birch, with leaves of green and silver flickering in the sunshine. Another day I see a little yellow flower like a dandelion; or a small yellow or white butterfly.

I walk along further and come to a little spring of water, flowing swiftly enough for me to sit on the edge and wash my feet. I walk along upstream against its gentle current, a mixture of bathing and walking, until I climb up into a deeper pool. At first this was pretty austere, surrounded by grey stone, but as the months have gone on, the pool is now surrounded by columns of golden stone, intricately carved, and interlaced with shiny green vines and climbing plants, and framing skies of Athenian blue. I swim here, quietly, stretching out, cleansed, in the pure water, fed by another spring.

And then I am summoned. A woman comes for me and I walk with her into a place of sun and light. I look up and feel myself bathed in sparkling light, a crystalline shower of light and water, and feel myself blessed and cleansed by the goddess, who is both invisible, and yet somehow radiant.

I walk on, inside, this time, into a dark hall with large doors that stand open into the sunlight. I find a large recumbent statue — a Buddha, I suppose — with an extraordinary property: I climb into its lap and whatever position I assume there is instantly peaceful. I stay there and sleep, or lie still and watch the motes of dust entering the room down shafts of sunlight.

And this is as far as I have got.

When I was reading my way into the world of breast cancer, I read about meditation as a form of pain management and relaxation. I took to it reluctantly, and still struggle hugely to still my mind enough to stop fretting about all those other things, the boulders that tumble down on me in the first stage. I'm also deeply dependent on my physical surroundings: sunlight and warmth figure hugely in this dream-vision narrative, and so I often need to be sitting outside, feeling the sun on my skin before I can begin.

But the true beginning was actually in the radiotherapy chamber. At the time, just over a year ago now, I wrote about my daily trips to the hospital here and here, but when the technicians had left the room, I would close my eyes and try and visualise the effect of the rays on the cancer cells. Years ago, I read about cancer patients playing Space Invaders with their cancer cells, zapping them into oblivion, fighting the evil invading cells as if they were so many aliens. I never felt comfortable with such military analogies, and so I visualised the machine showering me with health- and life-giving radiance, like a shower of pure water glistening in the sunshine, a shower that would wash me clean, would rinse and wash away the damaged cells.

So now, when I take my walk, I get to a certain point along the creek, and I stand and breathe in and hold my breath, and as I exhale I address any remaining cancer cells. I know which ones they are: the ones that the Tamoxifen has "locked" against oestrogen. So I say to them, "loosen; detach; dissolve", and they do; they slip from their moorings, move into my bloodstream and out at my feet into the waters of the Merri.

When I visualise the waters of the Merri moving down to Dights Falls, to join the Yarra, and out into the bay, I think I am seeing satellite images from Google Maps to help me. When I think about my dream-vision landscape, I think about the bits of Jung I have read. When I visualise moving into a large hall, with the possibility of moving through its doors into the sun again, I think about Joel's video games, the endless chambers and corridors of the Zelda games. When I think about being cleansed and showered with light and radiance by the goddess, I'm embarrassed, but I think about a whole range of conversations with various folk about health and peace and the world of spirit, which is not a world where I have spent much time at all. If I call her Athena, and think of her as goddess of learning, it helps a little to find something - a being - beyond myself, who has only my interests at heart. And indeed, I wrote about my wonderful
as a figure for Athena, too.

But if this landscape needs those external triggers, it's also a landscape I can take with me. In September last year, I climbed alone to the One Tree lookout over Ormiston Gorge, west of Alice Springs. I reached the top and looked over the other side of the gorge, and saw the rocks and grasses of my visionary landscape. I even poured a libation to Athena from my water bottle into the red sand of the cliff, and watched as steam rose up instantly from the hot rock. This was a week before my first annual mammogram and ultrasound. I then climbed down and swam in the dark waters of the gorge, in afternoon light.

Several weeks ago, too, I drove to Barwon Heads and walked along the beach to Ocean Grove and beyond. After about half an hour I turned back, and walked into the afternoon sun. The tide was out, and the flat smooth beach was covered in sheets and sheets of sparkling water, as shallow waves spread up the beach and receded, washing the beach again and again. Easy, then, to still the mind once more, and be transported into a state where I could sense light and water cleansing me of disease.

I'm encouraged, too, by the sudden appearances of a flower, a butterfly, in my dream-vision (I'm calling it that because that's the term we Chaucerians use: there is something not totally un-House-of-Fame-ish about this sequence of rooms and landscapes). If I concentrate, if I keep going, even if I need the sun on my neck, or the sound and sight of water, I feel there might be more of this landscape to discover.

An abrupt ending. I don't know what the next paragraph is. This was the third of the three difficult and personal posts. And now I don't know what the next post will be. But then, I never do, anyway.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Beautiful things in Brunswick St

Last weekend, Paul and I did a luxurious thing we sometimes do with Joel: Saturday lunch. This week, Joel was at a friend's house for the day, and so we caught a tram down Brunswick St. We went to Zetta Florence, first, to buy a present for a friend's 50th that night. Their website and catalogue are very technical, designed really for the professional archivist, perhaps, but in addition to white gloves and archive boxes and folders, their beautiful big store is full of delectable leather-bound folders and albums, gorgeous notebooks, cards, folders: a stationery lover's delight.

The style is French/Italian, and this is what my "household" folders now look like on my desk. I love the way the bills and tax receipts get to live in these beautiful folders, and their pale blues and greens that sit so lightly in my newly painted study.

We also called into a new shop that seemed to sell just Japanese papers and inks. I didn't note its name, and can't find a web image or site. It's much smaller than Zetta Florence, and in contrast to the perfect balance of beauty and utility there, this shop was concerned just with beauty. There were dozens of shallow drawers along each side of the shop, perhaps twelve or eighteen from floor to hip height, all finished in black matt veneer, each carefully pulled out a centimetre more than the one above, so that each bank of drawers displayed a narrow strip of the sheets of paper lying there, like the sides of so many ziggurats. The papers were beautiful. Tissue papers like raw silks, their threads and patterns inviting the hand to touch, and the eye to linger, and to range up and down across the spectrum of colours. Elegant prints and woodcuts in muted or luxurious colours, a stack of drawers for natural earth tones; another for kimono-style prints. Several drawers held papers that looked like what I imagine cloth of gold to look and feel like. We disputed whether they were prints for framing or papers for wrapping. I think the latter. But such luxury.

We then went to the Brunswick St bookstore, to hang out and see what was new. And I bought this beautiful object ...

... which you can also read about here.

And then we took ourselves off to Mario's for lunch. It was where we had had our first date together, and where we still like to go. The food is always excellent, "democratically priced" as one review has it, and I really like the challenge of the waiters....

I've just been looking for images of these shops, and have come across a wonderful website.

Make sure you can see the bar at the bottom of your screen, then scroll from left to right: you are travelling north along the west side of Brunswick St, starting (oh my goodness!) from the restaurant where we held our "wedding", along all the cafes and shops. You can see Zetta Florence, then keep going past Flowers Vasette and the big bees above the shop front on the corner of Greeves St, and note the room with the windows open above the Delicatessen (I lived there for a year), then two doors down from Johnston St, there are Mario's and the Bookstore next to each other. You can keep going for several more blocks, noting the red curtains of the Polly bar (great place for a late night cocktail on the one evening a year I might indulge in such a thing), and right down to Lucrezia and de Sade. So many memories and encounters all along and up and down this street. Wonderful pictures! Wonderful street! My city!

Anyhoo, as I was tucking into my eggs florentine and an aromatic mclaren vale sangiovese (my companion had the baked gnocchi with sage leaves deep fried in butter), I looked up at the sky, which was as blue and clear as it is in these photographs, and looked around in my head for the usual feelings of alarm and anxiety. Yes it was all very well to be going out for lunch, but what about all the other chores to be done, books to be written and read? What about the general terribleness of the world? Well, I looked for that feeling, and to my surprise, I couldn't find it. I checked, and looked again: it simply wasn't there.

Yes, there are still loads of things to do. I had to count up for someone today, and realised I have my finger in 5 (FIVE) book projects. Yes, once again we are re-organising our teaching curriculum. Yes, life is far from straightforward.

But I do believe that little by little I have been able to streamline, or simplify or straighten out my life somewhat, since being ill. I do believe I have learned to unravel some of the knots and tangles. And it feels good. And no, I haven't forgotten about Excruciatingly Personal Blog post No. 3; just pausing a moment to celebrate the world of textiles, images, sensations.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Sorry Day Pictures

I charged my camera battery up for Sorry Day, but forgot to put it back in the camera. Paul took his, though; so here are some pics of Melbourne at its most serious. It was an unusually grey day for the middle of summer.

You can see the strain and concentration on people's faces, as they furrowed their brows and held their faces in their hands, or put a hand out to touch one other.

This is how we applauded, just modestly and quietly.

And this is how we saw ourselves being filmed watching the crowds in Canberra.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Standing together

I've taken a week's annual leave this week, and am relishing just staying home with the "bounce-back" message on the email. I'm giving myself a week to re-familiarise myself with my book, and to try and get a particular chapter (the one on ritual reform and ritual criticism) drafted before the teaching semester starts.

But it's hard to concentrate, because I keep turning on the radio and checking various news pages on the web, to test out responses to this morning's apology.

I stood with Paul and several thousand others in Federation Square in the heart of Melbourne this morning. People stood quietly and attentively for around half an hour, applauding quietly and warmly at various moments after Rudd's apology and during the speech that followed. He spoke modestly, without flourish or rhetorical excess, but this was perfectly appropriate. This was a speech-act of a most profound kind; it was the act itself of saying "sorry" that needed to be foregrounded, and so it was, with great sincerity, with his three simple repetitions in the motion itself, and then his own first-person apologies in his supporting speech, on his own behalf, and of the parliament and of the nation.

I felt he not only captured the mood of the nation but also cathected it, in turn. We were not the only ones wiping tears from our eyes as he spoke, and as we heard him recount the devastating stories of children torn from their mothers, and torn apart from each other. Stories of reconciliation, too: the trooper with the whip who had taken three children away, and who many years later, sought them out, and asked their forgiveness; and finding it freely given. The insupportable misery of parents who lost their children and never saw them again. And we were reminded, too, that these policies were still in place in the 1970s, that there were still Parliamentarians in office today who had passed those laws.

Even when he finished, and applause filled the House, and filled the Square, under the big screen, the mood was pleased, but possibly still a bit overwhelmed. This was not a time for jubilation, but it seemed right to be filled with a sense of sadness and awe.

And then Brendan Nelson rose to speak. I thought he had spoken well yesterday, but today his speech seemed badly misjudged. He supported the apology, but seemed unable to find the same sympathetic directness of Rudd. Yes, Nelson's father had been taken from his teenage mother; yes, mothers had lost their sons and daughters in war; yes, Aboriginal people do still live in dreadful conditions. But so little of this seemed relevant; and much of it seemed hurtful and insensitive. To say that it was sometimes necessary to remove children from their parents; to discuss the problems of sexual abuse in Indigenous communities? On such a day? But we knew what to do. Almost as one, about three-quarters of the crowd turned our backs on the big screen. Some jeered and booed, some shouted. Mostly I just felt the instant dilution of the happy peace we had begun to feel.

Still, he too received a standing ovation, and the motion was passed unanimously. At least the members of the opposition who didn't support it were not there. Rudd stood, and applauded the one hundred members of the Stolen Generations in the gallery, and he was then presented with a ceremonial coolum. I hope it might find its place, eventually, next to the Mace which sits on the table when the House is in session.

Response around the nation is overwhelmingly positive. Of course some don't think it was necessary, or think it a political stunt; and of course it is not enough (Rudd has ruled out financial compensation). But listening to the radio I am hearing stories of news broadcasters not having enough tissues in the commentary box, of a man listening to the radio and being unable to get out of the car; and when he arrived late for a meeting, finding the receptionist watching the television with tears streaming down her face.

Radio talkback has picked up the themes of Rudd's empathy, and his love, his capacity to say, simply and directly, what the nation is feeling. I think he has surprised many people. I don't know when, if ever, an Australian prime minister has ever been described as "shining" before, as I heard him described a moment ago. But it's a good way to describe the day, I think, with its tears and its gladness. It's a good day. A shining day.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Apologies: national, institutional, personal

Three apologies to the Indigenous people of Australia.

The first comes from the Parliament of Australia. It will be delivered tomorrow morning in Canberra; and Paul and I will ride our bikes into Federation Square in the morning to stand, to be two bodies among the thousands standing in support of this small gesture, this symbolic attempt to begin reparation.

Here is the official text:

I move:

That today we honour the indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

We reflect on their past mistreatment.

We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history.

The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.

We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.

We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.

For the pain, suffering and hurt of these stolen generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.

We the Parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.

For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.

We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.

A future where this parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.

A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, indigenous and non-indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.

A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.

A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.
A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.

The second was circulated by my Vice-Chancellor this evening, and I am proud to cite it here:


To the Indigenous people of Australia

From the University of Melbourne

The University of Melbourne, established on the traditional land of the Kulin nation, is a community that aspires to participate in the creation of a diverse and harmonious nation. Our aim is to bring greater benefits to the Indigenous people of Australia through education and research, and to do so by involving Indigenous people in those endeavours. On behalf of the University of Melbourne, I acknowledge,

* The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the original inhabitants of the continent;

* Recognise their loss of land, children, health and kin, and the erosion of their languages, culture and lore and the manifold impacts of colonisation; and

* Australia will only become a mature nation when the past is acknowledged, so that the present can be understood and the future confidently based on the mutual recognition of aspirations and rights.

The University records its deep regrets for the injustices suffered by the Indigenous people of Australia as a result of European settlement.

On behalf of the University of Melbourne, I join with other Australians, led by the Prime Minister of Australia, the Hon. Kevin Rudd, to say a heartfelt 'sorry' to the Stolen Generations and their families and to all Indigenous Australians who have suffered the hurt and harm caused by the forced removal of children and families and its effect on the human dignity and spirit of Indigenous Australians.

The University also acknowledges and sincerely regrets any past wrongs carried out in the name of the University which have caused distress to Indigenous Australians.

The University is committed to using the expertise and resources of its teaching and learning, research and knowledge transfer activities to make a sustained contribution to lifting the health, education and living standards of Indigenous Australians. As an
institution we aim to produce the highest quality outcomes in all aspects of our academic endeavour - from the recruitment and retention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to building our cohort of Indigenous academic and professional staff.

To this end we hope to contribute to realising Indigenous aspirations and safe-guarding the ancient and rich Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage.

The University joins with all Australians who see in Parliament's recognition and apology a decisive moment in our nation's progress. In justice is the hope of reconciliation, in acknowledging the past the hope of the future.

Glyn Davis

The third, my own, is harder to post, since I must find the words myself, instead of relying on these polished and developed statements.

But I am sorry. I am sorry that my own life and my own happiness have been built, however indirectly, on a society that has enacted policies with such cruel effect on families and societies that have such ancient claims on this mysterious land we must now work so hard to understand. I am sorry that my own ancestors and leaders thought it right to take Indigenous children from their families. I can only imagine the ongoing pain and sorrow of a family broken up in this way, and the sorrow and anger of people suffering ethnic violence of this kind. In my daily walks along the Merri Creek, I try to understand something of the spirit of place, of seasonal change, of the creatures who live in its waters, its trees and its grasses; and perhaps glimpses of the people who used to live and fish there. And in some of my work, I try to comprehend different ways of understanding the past, trying to learn something of what we have lost, what we forget, and what we must try to remember. I join with others who see this day of apology - this day of saying sorry - to the custodians of this land, as a small beginning in a much longer process of reconciliation.

More strange conjunctions: Welcome to Country

Two days ago I was speculating on the uncomfortable yoking together of my work on the Order of the Garter and the prospect of John Howard joining the Order. David put it brilliantly: "two things you've had more-or-less emotion-charged relationships with in separate boxes suddenly tipped into the same compartment."

Today, another odd conjunction. This morning I was down at the State Library, reading John Nichols' edition for the Roxburghe Club of Edward VI's Literary Remains. (Does anyone else familiar with the Roxburghe Club frontispiece think that the man with a forked beard, wearing a floppy cap, and a long, wide-sleeved robe sitting reading looks a lot like Chaucer?)

Soon after he was crowned, Edward, at the tender age of about 14, set about reforming the Order's statutes, to get rid of all traces of "poperie and naughtines" (Ok, that was his first draft), like the references to St George. He insisted on the Sovereign's rights to make changes to the rituals and the Statutes whenever he wanted. His reforms were dramatically overturned when Mary came to the throne and restored the king her father's, Henry VIII's, Statutes.

What a contrast to proceedings in Canberra this morning. The opening of the new Parliament retained its long traditions, but began with a welcome to country for the first time.

It was done quietly, modestly, without undue fanfare. (I'm trying to find a video link to post, but have had no luck yet: if I'm successful, I'll update this entry.)

Quiet music of didgeridoo, sticks, and a shell accompanied Matilda House-Williams' dignified welcome to country, anticipating what we anticipate will be an even more dramatic and difficult piece of "sorry business" tomorrow, when the Parliament will make formal apology to the stolen generations of Aboriginal people. It is amazing, really, that it has taken so long for this ritual, now not uncommon in universities, cultural ceremonies, even the Commonwealth and Olympic games, to be performed in Canberra, but it was wonderful, even so.

Rudd looked moved, almost to tears, I thought (or was that just me? or was he offering up a quiet prayer?) as he sat holding the message stick presented to him by the grandchildren of Matilda House-Williams. He spoke to thank her, and hoped this would inaugurate a new custom for the Parliament, which was greeted by loud applause. Not a bad way to effect institutional change. Brendan Nelson, leader of the opposition, also spoke quietly and modestly, acknowledging human imperfection and agreeing that as long as he had anything to do with it, "we will have a welcome from Nunawal and their ancestors." (Is it churlish to remark that it might have been more graceful to say that they would always ask for a welcome?)

Then it was down to another form of traditional business, as the two houses gathered in their respective chambers; and then the Governor-General sat in the Senate and sent Black Rod off to summon the Reps for a joint sitting.

The Federal Black Rod seems to have dispensed with traditional court dress, perhaps when a woman took over the role? She was wearing a very subtly cut dark suit, with longish flared skirt, not unreminiscent of the shape of a frock-coat, with an elegant aubergine silk jabot. She walked out of the Senate, as straight and tall as the Rod she held upright, and the camera followed her down the deserted halls, corridors and courtyards. Her heels clicked authoritatively on the polished floors. When she arrived at the doors of the lower chamber, she raised the Rod to shoulder height, and held it perfectly level. She then tapped with its lower end on the door, and spoke her request. The doors could not be slammed in her face, as they do in some other Houses, because they are swing doors! Still they closed the doors and made her wait a moment, though, as is customary. But once she had delivered her message, the House then rose and followed her back down the corridors. It is sometimes traditional in Westminster for the lower house to take its time on this walk: there was no such show of autonomy and resistance to royal, or vice-regal command here.

As the members of the lower house came into the Senate and took their seats, I saw Julia Gillard (new Deputy PM), and I thought, she had gone to the wrong side, such was my habitual view. But of course, she now sits on the Government side! She and Rudd could clearly be seen waving happily over at their opponents on the other side of the chamber, and I bet that's an unofficial parliamentary tradition on a change of government. This is only the sixth in sixty years.

At the moment I'm working on the idea of "ritual change" in the Order of the Garter: the way the Order reforms and revises itself, and the way it so easily accommodates radical, even violent change. The official modern view is that the Order is sufficiently flexible and responsive to the demands of modernity that it can accommodate both tradition and innovation; an almost heroic blend of old and new, medieval and modern. This morning's ceremonies in Canberra look like a textbook case. Traditionalists will lament the loss of court dress, white lace, breeches, and marquisite-embuckled shoes, but quite frankly, I don't think a possum-skin cloak ever looked so good.

[Update: Pavlov's Cat has found a link of the first part of the welcome: the video skips a bit and goes back to Skynews, but if you persist, you get to uninterrupted footage:

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Hurrumph!! now here's a test of academic somethingorother.

The Age reports a rumour that John Howard has been selected to join the Order of the Garter to fill Sir Edmund Hillary's vacancy.

Not this year, I wouldn't think; as you are normally supposed to be knighted first.

Heaven knows it's not that I expect the Garter to be given to a union organiser or a humble health worker or a poet, for example; and it's not that I expect I have much in common with many KGs. I am usually able to preserve a healthy scepticism and distance between the cultural work the Order does, which is deeply fascinating to me; and the political and ceremonial honour it bestows, to which I am completely indifferent.

So why does this prospect disturb me so much? The prospect of sharing an interest with John Howard?

It would be pretty amazing: the commonwealth members tend to be of the vice-regal kind (Sir Paul Hasluck, Sir Ninian Stephen), while former PMs are British (Thatcher, Major, Heath, etc.). And before you ask, Menzies was a member of the Scottish Order of the Thistle, a different ball game altogether. It would be an extraordinarily partisan act to select Howard, so I'm sceptical. But a little scared, all the same. I do believe I find I think of it as my Order!

Time to just sit down and finish the damn book, Stephanie!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Three Excruciatingly Personal Blog Entries, No.2

The trouble with the grand plan I have now announced twice (viz. writing three posts that push the limits of the personal) is twofold.

First, I find that those limits are mutable. After a few days, Excruciatingly Personal Blog Post No.1 came to seem far too personal, with the potential to involve other people’s emotions and senses of privacy. And so I deleted it. It was an interesting exercise, all the same. Meredith made a beautiful comment, to the effect that poems usually take much longer than blog entries to grow and develop, and by implication, to develop a sense of the readerly exchanges they might invite, and the emotional effects they might set off.

Second, the genre of the blog doesn't naturally lend itself to plans. I've been caught out many times planning a blog entry - even taking the photos for it - and then because I don't write it that day, feeling the moment has passed.

But in this case I do feel that my blog has been working towards this second of three posts, for some time now, and I think I'm ready. So here goes:

The Menopause Post

I have never been a purely cerebral thinker or writer. I'm always deeply conscious of my surroundings: light, temperature, sound, bodily disposition. I've never been good at working in cafes, for example. I notice everything around me; and I think it's both a strength and a weakness in the kind of work I do. But ever since I announced my cancer diagnosis and made the decision to keep on blogging, I have been even more conscious of the fact that I am writing, here, and other places as well, both as a body, and as a mortal being. So in fact, this will probably turn out to be a post about menopause and ageing, not just the former.

It's more than a year since I began the hormone therapy that will last five years in all. I'm being treated as part of a global clinical trial that is testing the side-effects and recurrence rates of cancer under drugs that are normally prescribed according to one's menopausal status, being used in a range of conditions. It will amuse many readers of this blog to know that it is called the "TEXT" trial. So while Tamoxifen is routinely given to pre-menopausal women, I'm being made post-menopausal by an additional regime of ovarian ablation: this takes the form of a monthly injection to suppress ovarian function and the production of estrogen. Tamoxifen works to "lock up" any breast cancer cells that might remain after surgery and radiotherapy, and to stop them feeding on estrogen: the Triptorelin injections suppress the production of estrogen. There are a number of different kinds of breast cancer: mine was of the slow-growing, estrogen-feeding kind.

So, while menopause usually involves the gradual diminution of estrogen, its onset in my case was very sudden. Menopausal symptoms result from changes in estrogen levels as the body adapts to this changing hormonal environment... But I should put a disclaimer in here. Of course, I'm no medical expert. This is just what I have picked up.

The breast cancer booklet available from the National (i.e. Australian) Breast Cancer Centre lists these as the side effects of anti-estrogen drugs like Tamoxifen: menopausal symptoms, blood clots, stroke, cancer of the uterus and changes in vision. And the good news? lowered risk of osteoporosis, lowered cholesterol levels.

Menopausal symptoms are also spelled out: hot flushes, sleep disturbance, vaginal dryness and/or discharge, decrease in libido, no menstrual periods or irregular ones.

This is a shortlist; the leaflet with the Tamoxifen lists many more, though they affect only a tiny proportion of women.

Here's another list I found:
Other symptoms that can occur include anxiety, poor memory, poor concentration, insomnia, fatigue, palpitations, decreased libido, muscle pains, crawling skin and urinary problems.
And to really cheer you up, here's a list of 34 symptoms!

Of all these potential symptoms, the only one that's caused me any significant discomfort, to the point of thinking about any kind of medical or psychological intervention, are the hot flushes. It's like functioning with a broken thermostat. It's a little easier now but for most of last year, I would wake many times in the night, alternately freezing cold (even cold to the touch) and then burning hot. Imagine the most embarrassing deep blush you can; and imagine it spreading over your whole body. Twenty or thirty times a day. Every day. Then imagine being so cold, half an hour later, that you could see the sense of a nose-warmer, just to add to the dignity of proceedings. The flushes are often accompanied by a rush of perspiration, running down the back of your legs, say, when you have just introduced someone at a conference, or yourself at a "research lunch" hosted by the vice-chancellor.

My oncologist says if it gets bad enough, it can be treated with a low-dose anti-depressant, but whenever we have this discussion, we usually say something like "well, let's see how it goes, and we can review in three months".

I've written elsewhere about heightened levels of anxiety, especially when I went back to work last year. Of course it's impossible to say whether anxiety — which I've learned is sometimes regarded as a form of depression — is a direct result of hormonal changes, or compounded by other things like a cancer diagnosis and treatment, or major changes to the work environment, such as we've experienced at Melbourne over the last two years, or the general condition of trying to juggle several writing and research projects with teaching and administrative tasks. (Truly, most of you academic readers in the US: You Have No Idea how many such tasks senior academic staff are expected to take on in Australia.)

Other symptoms come and go a bit, while there seems to be a bit of dispute in the medical profession about what is a symptom or not. Heart palpitations? maybe. Changes to the constitution of one's tears? possibly. Weight gain? disputed.

And then we are quickly in different territory. Because of course it's not just menopause we're dealing with here: it's also the after-effects of serious illness; and it's ageing, too.

About six months ago I looked in the mirror and thought I must have absent-mindedly let my pen draw a vertical line down the side of my mouth. But it was a long crease in my skin, a new wrinkle, or a fold. I'd heard of people's hair going white overnight as a result of shock. This seemed to me to be of the same order. And very shocking it was, too.

Now I've read enough feminist theory to have a sense of the social and cultural climate in which women experience menopause and ageing, but I'll admit I was still unconsciously thinking of both these things as a kind of end, or even as a kind of failure, or flaw. I see myself looking at women younger or older than I am, and see myself making judgements about them. And I've lived enough of my life in the light of The Gaze to anticipate its withdrawal as a loss. But on balance, I thought I would mind much more than I do about starting to look older. OK, seeing that line on the side of my mouth was a bit of a shock, but it certainly hasn't provoked any lasting trauma.

But what I can really see now is that one's mortality is a much bigger deal than one’s ageing, or one’s hormonal status: that really is an end.

I never anticipated what it would really feel like to turn 50, as I will do next month. I think I have quite a strong capacity to empathise, but I could never identify with academic folk who talked about retirement, or with characters in fiction who were concerned about their life's work coming to an end. I can, now. I don’t mean to sound too dramatic: of course I have lots of good and productive years ahead. But I can see, now, that just as the ovaries only have so many eggs, I might have only so many books and essays left to write, that there might be a finite number of years ahead. Unexpectedly, thinking about my own mortality makes me, if anything, less anxious about writing and finishing project after project. It seems to take some of the pressure off, somehow.

And so, really, there's nothing very special about this set of menopausal side-effects, or really, effects. I am just about the perfect age to go through this, and I'm sure this makes it much less traumatic than for younger women, especially those who were planning to have children, or more children. My friends and I now regularly talk about our symptoms; and they all seem to be perfectly calm and cheerful about it, even about the anxiety and moodiness that beset us. There’s no doubt that naming and sharing the process is of immense comfort.

Menopause, then, turns out to be like so many of things we go through: childbirth, marriage, love, death, puberty. The experiences might be universal, or at least common, but the "going through" is not. It still feels, each time, for everyone, like an individual rite of passage. It’s made for blogging.