Rescue

Other people’s words about … giving up

A few years ago I was living in a loft with a man and two cats and it started to happen again. In the morning, in the split second between sleep and waking, I would almost accidentally start to pray. I’d feel sunlight through the slits in the blinds, register that the alarm on my iPhone was going off, start hitting the bed and the windowsill and digging under myself to find it and tap its little snooze ‘button.’ There were cats on either side of my head, and my human husband, to the right, was snoring hairily on his back, his hands curling and uncurling on his chest like the paws of a tickled kitten. But despite how many of us there were in the bed, I felt alone and too small to survive, too permeable, too disorganized, and trapped in something I didn’t have the words to describe. And something in me stretched up in a physical way toward the place where God used to be. I’d wake up and remember: there is no God. But I wanted to give up anyway, as if in doing so I could be rescued.

From ‘Letter from Williamsburg’
by Kristin Dombek
in The Best American Essays 2014, edited by John Sullivan and Robert Atman

I grew up in a non-religious family, but I was christened and baptised, and from primary school onwards I went to a Church of England (now Anglican) school. At school, we sang hymns and said prayers in the Assembly Hall every morning; and we had weekly lessons in Christian Education; and we went to special services in the church affiliated with the school at Easter and Christmas; and we had a special school hymn, which we sang (off by heart) at Speech Day at the end of each school year. I can still recite the Lord’s Prayer all the way through.

All of which is to say, I was instructed as a child in the habit of faith. Maybe that’s why I remember talking to God and making bargains with God all the way through my childhood and on into adolescence.

Dear God, I would say inside my head, if you give me this, I will do that. And: Dear God, let me get through this. And: Dear Lord, make things get better. Please make things get better.

That kind of thing.

Stretching up (1)

The kind of prayer I was taught at school, the non-bargaining kind of prayer we practised there, is an art: it’s a ritual, a discipline. An act of community, too. But the other kind of prayer, the bargaining kind of prayer, the chatty kind of prayer — the kind Kristin Dombek describes when she writes, I would almost accidentally start to pray (my emphasis) — is instinctive. And solitary. It comes, I think, from something deep inside of us: a yearning to feel better. Or to do better. Or to be better. A yearning to be heard.

Because who doesn’t want to stretch up — in an almost physical way, as Dombek puts it — to something outside oneself, something bigger than oneself? Who doesn’t want to be answered?

Who doesn’t want to be heard?

Stretching up (2)

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Astonished

Other people’s words about … ageing

When I was thirty, I felt sure that a paradoxical reward awaited me at sixty, if I made it that far. Having never had any beauty to lose, I reasoned, I’d be exempted from mourning its loss. But as I’ve grown older, this proposition has turned inside out. I see now that I did have at least some beauty — not much, but some — and exactly because I had so little, I could hardly afford to lose it. Now, at this inconvenient moment, I realise that I do care about my looks. I find myself spending more energy compensating for my inadequacies than I used to. I search for becoming clothes. I color my hair. I experiment, in a gingerly [sic] way, with makeup. I suspect these efforts don’t do a lot for me, though they do make some difference, if only in letting people know I’m trying.

From ‘At Sixty-Five’
by Emily Fox Gordon

I am closer to fifty years old than I am to sixty-five: my fiftieth birthday is next year, 2020. And yet, already I understand that inconvenient moment Emily Fox Gordon describes in the passage above.

When I was a young woman — that is to say, when I was in my twenties and thirties — I went makeup-free. I washed my (uncoloured) hair and let it drip dry; I applied nothing other than sunblock to my skin (not even moisturiser). And, oh, I bought all my clothes from op-shops: jeans, shirts, trousers for work, jackets. I still remember the pretty, floral-patterned strappy dress I bought from my local St Vincent’s op-shop to wear to my niece-in-law’s wedding, which cost $3. I happened to be very thin at the time, because of a digestive illness, and within six months of the wedding, I was well again, which meant that I could no longer fit into it. But I kept that dress for years afterwards. Every now and then, I would pull it out of my wooden chest to look at it: to run my fingers over the soft, thin, flowered fabric.

$3! To prepare for the wedding, I’d pulled the dress over my head twenty minutes beforehand, brushed my hair and tied it back in an elastic band, slipped on a pair of sandals (the only pair I owned), and then spent a couple of minutes debating over whether I’d need a (secondhand) jacket or not, because it was an outdoor wedding, and there was a cool breeze blowing through my window. And then I grabbed my partner’s hand, and we left for the wedding.

Yorke Peninsula: View from the cliffs

If you had asked me during those years what guided my fashion style, I would have said — very proudly, very innocently — that I went for a ‘natural’ look. What I wouldn’t have said, because I didn’t yet realise it, was that I went for a young, natural look. I didn’t yet understand that the word ‘natural’, when it comes to a woman’s beauty, her appearance, is synonymous with the word ‘young’. I couldn’t have understood it back then. I was too young.

*

I found Fox Gordon’s essay in The Best American Essays 2014, a copy of which I borrowed from my local library to take with me on our latest camping trip to Yorke Peninsula. (Yes, I’m still enjoying reading essays.) It is a short essay, as essays go, but it is wise and witty and forthright, and almost every word in it rings true for me. (You can read it in its entirety here.)

Thirty years ago I assumed I would take the eccentric route as I aged, become one of those bluff, outspoken, truth-telling old women people claim to admire, even as they avoid them. That would have been in keeping with my strong contrarian impulse. But instead of growing bolder and more heedless, I seem to be growing more circumspect, more nervously observant of the proprieties, more conscious of other people’s feelings.

Now that I’m (almost) fifty, I, too, find myself becoming more circumspect, both in the way I dress and in the way I speak and act. I feel [my age] in my invisibility to strangers, Fox Gordon writes. And it fascinates me — no, let me be honest here: it astonishes me — that as women like Fox Gordon, women like me, grow more invisible, we grow in tandem more worried about how other people perceive us. This is a contrarian impulse that we could, perhaps, never have predicted when we were younger — again, precisely because we were younger.

Yorke Peninsula again: Clouds, reflected

*

The day after we got back from Yorke Peninsula, I rode my bike to Semaphore, where I often go to buy my groceries and to borrow my library books. I parked and locked my bike outside the sushi shop, bought a sushi roll, and then wandered down the main street towards the library. There was a woman at the ATM as I walked by, her back to me as she withdrew her cash. She was around my age, or perhaps a little older: tall, lean, wearing easy, worn clothes, her hair tied back in a long, straight, grey ponytail. She had a slender face but a strong profile: short eyelashes, pointy nose. No makeup, as far as I could tell. I glanced at her as I walked by — once, and then again. Then again.

I thought of Fox Gordon. I thought of the old(er) woman I hope I will one day become. It came to me, then, that I was looking right at her, my role model, standing at the ATM in all her natural, worn, grey beauty.

There is room, I believe, for all of us. We can be contrarian, if we dare.

Yorke Peninsula again: Three clouds

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been reading online lately:

An open and shut case

Other people’s words about … signs

[The waitress] leans over our table and turns the sign in the window so that it says CLOSED on the outside. But on our side, perfectly positioned between Mabel’s place and mine, it says OPEN. If this were a short story, it would mean something.

From ‘We Are Not Alone’
by Nina La Cour

I am the kind of person who, like Marin, the narrator in the passage above, can’t help seeing life through symbols and signs: I see metaphorical OPEN and CLOSED signs in my own life every day.

Lately, as some of you know, I’ve been released (at least for now) from the routine of salaried office work. I’m not answerable to an employer any more; I don’t have to be at the office at a particular time, or sign on and off at the beginning and end of my shift, or conform to a certain dress code, or take my lunch hour at a stipulated time for a stipulated duration. All of which implies a certain freedom, the kind of freedom I’ve often craved.

But I do have to hustle. If I want to get work as a freelancer, I have to go out and seek it, something I never had to do as a salaried employee. And in the daily transactions of that hustling — contacting people, letting them know of my existence and of the work I do, following up their responses, thinking of new people to contact and new ways to work — it’s all too easy to see signs everywhere I look. Someone doesn’t answer my email? That’s a CLOSED sign. Someone writes back, saying it’s lovely to hear from me? That’s an OPEN sign.

And so on.

It’s exhausting and exciting, both those things at once, and I don’t know yet where it will take me or what it will lead me to — or whether, ultimately, it will be sustainable. But for now, it’s early days, and I’m giving it a chance, and I still believe there might be some OPEN signs on the path ahead of me …

Signs and symbols: The way forward?

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Meanwhile, as always, I’ve been reading! Here’s the recent digest:

Snatched phrases: changing world

‘I felt I was a caterpillar changing colour,
precariously balanced,
moving from one species of leaf to another.’

From ‘Warlight’
by Michael Ondaatje

In the passage above, the narrator is an adolescent boy on the cusp of adulthood; the story is, among other things, a story of his passage into the adult world.

The lone grevillea bush in flower at the winter solstice

I love the image Michael Ondaatje uses in this passage — not the stereotypical image of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, which would have worked, but this more intricate, layered, thoughtful image of the caterpillar … still a caterpillar, undoubtedly, but a caterpillar that changes as it moves from one world to the next.

Anthills: they appear one day in the Scrub, and disappear the next

I don’t have any photos of caterpillars, but I took the pictures accompanying today’s post in the Aldinga Scrub during the week of the winter solstice …

Unknown mistletoe on banksia bush

… a time of year when we all, to some extent, mark the passing of time and of the seasons, and of the ever-changing natural world about us …

Grasstrees: not yet in flower, but standing sentinel nonetheless

Leak

Other people’s words about … young boys singing

When I was a boy and I sang, my voice felt to me like a leak sprung from a small and secret star hidden somewhere in my chest and whatever there was about me that was fragile disappeared when my mouth opened and I let the voice out. We learned, we were prisons for our voices.

From ‘Edinburgh
by Alexander Chee

I love this image of singing, of the purity of young boys’ voices before they break, and of their song.

And there is no photograph in my collection, really, that I can illustrate this post with adequately, so instead I leave you with a link to a piece of music I love — not a song at all, but a sonata by Beethoven, one that never fails to move me. Despite its overtones, these days, of hackneyed and saccharine overuse, the Moonlight Sonata in its essence is a gorgeous piece.

I think Beethoven would have understood and known that leak that springs from a small and secret star hidden somewhere in [your] chest, whether you are a boy singing or a woman listening to a beautiful piece of music. Don’t you?

What I see now

Other people’s words about … tears

I can’t help it, the valve between my thoughts and tears is so worn down that I don’t think I have any control over them anymore. Fat tears drop onto my cheeks. I feel them before I even know what’s happening and I just let them fall. I pull my hand [away from Gideon’s, and he] rolls over to face me.

from ‘Beautiful Mess
by Claire Christian

When I first started reading young adult novels I was already in my mid-twenties, several years older than their teenage target audience. That was partly because when I myself was a teenager, young adult novels had only just begun to become a ‘thing’, especially Australian young adult novels. And it was partly because something drew me to those novels in my mid-twenties, despite my age: something about their coming-of-age themes — and then, too, something about the way they handled those coming-of-age themes. Most of all, I liked the raw, direct voice in which many of their narratives were written, a voice that was both bleak and hopeful.

After I’d written my own two young adult novels, my love for the genre started to fade. This was partly, in turn, because I had in the meantime grown older again: my life now had nothing in common with either the novels’ protagonists or the novels’ intended readers. But it was also partly because it seemed to me that there were, suddenly, too many young adult novels being published every year. That raw, direct, bleak/hopeful voice seemed to me suddenly overused. Over-familiar. Hackneyed, even.

I don’t know what made me pick up Claire Christian’s young adult novel Beautiful Mess the other day. At any rate, it is the first young adult novel I have read in a long, long time, and I read it on our latest trip in the caravan to Yorke Peninsula. The reading of it felt like one, long, jagged, indrawn breath that I couldn’t release until I had got to the end. There it was again, that raw, direct, bleak/hopeful voice — familiar, yes, but not overused this time. Not hackneyed. It was a poignant voice. Intimate.

The view through the caravan while I was reading

That’s what I love most about good novels, whatever genre they happen to fall into. Their protagonists, and the writer behind them, reach out and speak to you: they say things you know you’ll never forget, things you yourself have been wanting to say, but haven’t figured out how to. I see now that this is something I haven’t managed to do in my own writing for quite some time, though I didn’t realise it until I stopped. Perhaps that’s why I stopped: though the decision felt instinctual and unplanned, perhaps my instinctual knowledge simply kicked in before my conscious knowledge did.

In the meantime, even though I’m not writing fiction, I know I’ll find more good books to read (whatever their genre), and more narrative voices to hear, and more tears to shed. There’s nothing bleak about that prospect: in fact, the view ahead of me seems filled with hope.

Rift

How we see ourselves

Stella had noticed that the woman in [the painting] ‘The Jewish Bride’ wore pearls. Also earrings. Maybe that was why she looked so intimately self-assured. Stella hadn’t had her ears pierced until her sixtieth birthday. She’d been squeamish about it but thought the pain would be balanced by the confidence the look would give her. She would become — finally — a woman taking her own decisions, a woman with authority over herself.

From ‘Midwinter Break’
by Bernard MacLaverty

The year I turned fifteen, I grew up, physically. That was the year that I turned from a slightly plump, almost-flaxen-haired girl into an adolescent woman with breasts and hips and thighs and lank, dirty-blonde hair. I wasn’t the kind of girl to celebrate any of these things: in fact, I wanted to turn back the clock. I didn’t want breasts and hips and thighs and lank, dirty-blonde hair. I wanted something else. I wanted to look the way I thought I had once looked, but I knew that I couldn’t. Not any more.

The strange thing is that the way I’d thought I had once looked as a child wasn’t the way I had actually looked as a child. I’d thought — all my life I’d thought this — that I had been skinny and elfin and girlish. In fact, I hadn’t been that at all, ever. But it wasn’t until my mid- to late teens that I understood this.

When I did, I was deeply shocked.

Looking for the horizon (1)
(that line of disconnect between the sky and the sea)

Somewhere around the time of that realisation, and for a long time afterwards, I stopped eating enough. I’ve touched on this act of mine — of abstinence — before. In the early years, it was a conscious, deliberate act: an effort to force my body to a level of thinness that I thought had once been my natural state. Later, it became both a less strict and a less conscious act; indeed, it became more of a process than an act. I think that what I was trying to do, all those years, was to make abstinence a part of who I was, rather than all that I did.

It took a long to stop doing this, and even longer to stop trying to do it. In fact, it wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I really allowed myself to eat without any kind of enforced abstinence at all, though by then the things I abstained from were barely noticeable to anyone other than myself. Still, if such a thing as recovery from an eating disorder exists, that’s when it happened for me — halfway though my thirties. Not before.

But though I did eventually lose the compulsion to abstain, to this day I have still not lost the shock I feel when I am confronted with the real image of myself — in photos, in the mirror — as opposed to the image of myself that I carry around in my mind. I still think of myself, unconsciously, erroneously, as skinny and elfin and girlish. As light and slender and ethereal. As pretty. I am not any of these things, and I never have been; but that’s not how I feel.

I think we all live with a certain level of disconnect between the way we perceive ourselves and the way we actually are. You know that feeling you get when you turn forty (or fifty, or sixty, or seventy) and you think, ‘But I don’t feel like I’m forty (or fifty, or sixty, or seventy); I feel like I’m still twenty-five’? That’s the disconnect I mean, right there. I am not sure that everyone experiences it as strongly as I do: for me, it seems to run through my entire perception of myself. I’ve always had it, and always will; adolescence was just the first time that I was confronted with it. Even now, each time I am confronted once again with my misperception of myself — with the difference between the ‘me’ that people interact with and the ‘me’ that lives inside of me — I feel the same shock anew.

Looking for the horizon (2)

I like to think that this sense of disconnect between perception and reality is what Bernard MacLaverty is touching on, very lightly, very deftly, in the passage I’ve quoted above. Sixty-year-old Stella tells herself that getting her ears pierced will give her confidence; she genuinely believes that her new look will enable her to become a woman with authority over herself. But the earrings do not bring about the sense of intimate self-assurance that she seeks. Of course they don’t. Stella never becomes — finally — the woman she seeks to be: the woman she believes she is capable of being; the woman, I think, she secretly believes she might already be.

Perhaps here I’m reading too much into MacLaverty’s words. If nothing else, there is an affectionate sadness in his words to which I respond. Still, on those days when I feel deeply disconnected from my two selves, from the interacting ‘me’ and the internal ‘me’, I find solace in passages like his. I like to think that — like Stella, like me — you, too, are puzzled by the rift between your internal you and your external you. I like to think that you, too, feel as though there is a different — a better, a lovelier, a lonelier — you inside of you than anyone ever sees.

I like to think this, because thinking it lessens somehow the sense of disconnect I have between your experience and mine: between your world and mine. That, at least, is a point of connection. And a connection is the opposite of a rift, after all: it is a kind of affinity.