Quiet days

Other people’s words about … reading

For me, reading was never an antisocial activity. It was deeply social. It was the most profound kind of socialising there was. A deep connection to the imagination of another human being. A way to connect without the many filters society normally demands.

So often, reading is seen as important because of its social value. It is tied to education and the economy and so on. But that misses the whole point of reading.

Reading isn’t important because it helps to get you a job. It’s important because it gives you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape.

Reading is love in action.

From ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’
by Matt Haig

I love these words by Matt Haig. Reading gives me, too, the sense that my mind is merging with another person’s mind. Sometimes, a good book will make me cry; sometimes it will make me laugh. Always, a good book gives me a sense of connection, and a sense of escape.

I mentioned in a recent post that I was going through a quiet phase in my life, feeling my way through it. That hasn’t changed: I’m still there, still in that quiet phase. I’m spending my days learning the ropes as a freelance editor: working out the things I like about freelancing, along with the things I don’t; working out the things I can change, along with the things I can’t. Sometimes I feel as though my journey away from salaried employment towards freelance work — a journey that I was forced into, but that I have chosen to continue on, at least for now — is a hopeful, purposeful one, and sometimes I feel as though it’s a short-lived, doomed one.

Whichever it is, I’m still here. I’m still on my journey.

Still travelling.

A quiet day at the jetty

Most of all, I’m still reading. Reading helps me through these quiet days. It helps me make sense of them. It helps me feel connected.

It helps me, simply.

A quiet end to a quiet day

Lately I’ve been reading about …

The map of my face

Other people’s words about … making peace with yourself

My face is a map of all I have lived. Some days, I feel beautiful and right in my skin. Some days, I don’t. The truth is, we never really get fixed; instead, we try to make peace, daily, with who and what we are. We learn to embrace the glorious, imperfect whole rather than punishing ourselves because of our flawed parts.

Anyway.

From ‘Before and After’, by Libba Bray
in ‘Hope Nation’, edited by Rose Brock

I wrote in a recent post about ageing and how I feel about it as I near the age of fifty. About how, as I’ve aged, I’ve grown more rather than less conscious of the way people perceive me.

Perhaps, in that post, I conveyed the sense that I thought beauty was solely an external concept, that it had only to do with one’s physical shape, one’s embodied self. If I did, I apologise. I have always known that beauty comes from within. As I age, I become even more aware of that than ever.

The dying of the light

You could read the words I’ve quoted in today’s post, from Libba Bray’s essay ‘Before and After’, as being about learning to come to terms with one’s physical imperfections and so-called flaws. Indeed, her essay is, at least in part, about how her physical appearance changed after she was involved as a young woman in a terrible motor vehicle accident in which she lost an eye.

But that’s not how I read her words. When she writes: Some days, I feel beautiful and right in my skin. Some days, I don’t, I take her I to mean her sense of her inner self, and how that inner, intangible self feels to reside in the physical husk of her body. When she writes: we try to make peace, daily, with who and what we are, I take her what to mean her embodied self, but I take her who to mean her inner self, her non-physical self.

Her soul, if you like.

We are each of us, in our daily experiences of living, enmeshed in both the physical and the non-physical aspects of life. Our understanding of beauty therefore encompasses those twin aspects. So, I think, does ageing, which we may experience as a sense of growing physical frailty or as a sense of growing wisdom (or, equally, of growing mental infirmity). The physical begets the non-physical — and, I suspect, vice versa.

So when I read Bray’s words, I felt an instant resonance with them. We learn to embrace the glorious, imperfect whole, she says, and I take the word whole to mean the whole of life: physical, non-physical, and everything in between.

Which I, too, embrace.

*

Bray’s essay is, in fact, about hope rather than beauty or ageing, and it is addressed specifically to teenagers and young adults. In it, Bray writes about how she, as a very young woman, found hope amidst despair. Despair, she makes clear, is primarily an experience of loneliness, and hope, therefore, is an experience of the opposite of loneliness. Of love.

Or, as Bray puts it in (spoiler alert) the last three lines of her essay:

You are not alone.
You are not alone.
You are not alone.

Growth

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Under big skies

Other people’s words about … the moon over the sea

He lay across the bed on top of the bedspread [in his room in the cottage by the sea]. Moon shadows of trees outside fell against the pine-based walls. The bedspread was tinged a bluish white, its pattern of roses transformed to a lunar landscape. He had forgotten about the particular lustre of a seaward moon. How when a moon hung over the ocean they were not separate entities, but a third element fused from their continuous correspondence. The planks of the cottage walls appeared fastened together by this faint glow.

From ‘The Dependents’
by Katharine Dion

I love Katharine Dion’s description, here, of the moon hanging over the sea. Years ago, when I worked the late shift, I used to drive home afterwards to our beach shack south of the city. The drive took me just under an hour, and by the time I turned off the main road onto the esplanade, it would be nearly midnight. From my car, I could see the beach beyond the cliffs, the waves rolling in to meet the shore and then falling back. The water was the colour of black ink, and on clear nights the moon hung above it in just the way Dion describes: as though it was connected to the ocean, as though the two were in communication with each other.

I would turn off the esplanade onto our own road feeling freed of the shift I’d just worked, returned to the life I wanted to live, by the ocean, under big skies.

Evening skies

I haven’t worked the late shift for years now, but I still feel the same gratitude for the house where I live, for the ocean at the end of the road, for the moon and the sun and the sky over the water, which I see every night and every day.

Every night. Every day.

The ocean at the end of the road

Lately I’ve been reading about …

If only I’d known

Other people’s words about … what’s important (or not)

I found a studio where I could practise a particular kind of semi-cultish yoga; I sweated on my purple mat for ninety minutes to pounding trance beats, drank smoothies in the vegan cafe, relished the feeling of freezing sweat on my cheeks when I threw my coat on over my leggings and walked in the snow to the Q train.

Maybe this will be the year I’ll learn to stand on my head, I thought, maybe a headstand is the thing I will accomplish in 2014. I thought about it a lot, like a headstand was a thing that was important.

From ‘This Really isn’t About You’
by Jean Hannah Edelstein

If only I’d known. That’s the feeling Jean Hannah Edelstein is describing in the passage above. In her case, these words applied to a period in her life when she didn’t yet know that she had Lynch syndrome, a hereditary condition that predisposes her to developing cancer later in her life.

If only. If only. Who hasn’t said that to themselves, at some point in their lives? If only I’d known, I’d have focused on other things. If only I’d known, I’d have made different plans. I’d have done more; I’d have said more; I’d have tried more. I’d have been more.

Don’t tell me you haven’t ever thought that.

*

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks over here in my nook of the world, as I continue to try to find my way in the freelance world. I don’t know whether I’ll manage to make a living from freelance editing, in the end. But on tough days, uncertain days, I remind myself that at least I’ll always know that I tried.

Which makes for one less if only in my life.

Grey skies

And meanwhile, in my spare time, I’ve gone wandering beneath grey skies, and blue skies, and cloudy skies, and clear skies. Because there’s no hint of an if only whenever I’m out wandering.

Blue(-ish) skies

Lately I’ve been reading about …

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 …

My version, your version

Other people’s words about … truth

In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination … The facts of imaginative literature are as hard as the stone that Dr. Johnson kicked. We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios — there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.

From ‘The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’
by Janet Malcolm

I was disabused of the notion that memoirists and autobiographers write ‘the truth’ a long time ago, after I read, and wept over, James Frey’s ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces, only to discover subsequently that he had made up much of what he had written about within it. Since then, I’ve learned to take anything I read in a piece of nonfiction with a huge pinch of salt.

Like most people, though, I am still used to thinking of works of fiction as telling something that is the opposite of truth. I think of them as stories, things that exist only in our imagination. I love the way that Malcolm, in the passage above, subverts this concept of the truth. In doing so, she tells us something far more truthful, I think, about the nature of truth.

Interior versus exterior:
Grass trees from a distance

It was my mother who introduced me to Janet Malcolm, after a conversation we’d had about nonfiction writing. I found Malcolm’s thoughts on the problem of truth in biography and other nonfiction writing illuminating, even though the passage I’ve quoted from is now more than fifteen years old.

Truth versus fiction, internal truth versus external truth, interior versus exterior. How much of what we see and read and think is subjective and biased? How much can we ever say is true?

Interior versus exterior:
Inside a grass tree

Lately I’ve been reading about …

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

Standing straight and tall

Other people’s words about … running

When I was lying in my hospital bed [with cancer], wondering if I wold ever be able to stand straight again, I decided that if I ever could, I would run. I don’t run marathons. I don’t want to run marathons. I trot round the park and then often stop for a cup of tea and a scone.

From ‘The Art of Not Falling Apart’
by Christina Patterson

There’s no doubt about it — running is a popular form of exercise these days. It seems to me that it hasn’t been this popular since the 1970s, back when it was called ‘jogging’, back before one of the men responsible for popularising it as a form of fitness, Jim Fixx, had died from a massive heart attack just after returning home from his daily run.

There’s no doubt that different runners run for different reasons, which is as it should be. Some people run primarily as a means to an end: to get fit and lose weight, whether or not they love or loathe running itself. Some people run compulsively, addictively, to a point that takes them beyond good health and fitness to something closer to ill health, both physical and mental. (On that topic, in particular, I found this article particularly interesting.) Some people run to challenge themselves; some people run to compete in races; some people run to find companionship; some people run to raise money for a cause they believe in.

And some of us run simply because it makes us feel good. And because we find, to our joy, that we can.

What I see when I run:
Boats

I found myself thinking about all of this recently because, for a brief moment, I thought I might enter a race, my first race. The race I was thinking of running in is the Mother’s Day Classic, a walk/run event in which walkers and runners raise money for breast cancer. I’ve done the walk with my mother for the last three years, and I’ve loved every moment of it: the time we spend together as we walk the course, the conversation we have, the knowledge that we’re raising money for an important cause. And, of course, the breakfast that we linger over together in a coffee shop afterwards, too!

But this year my mother will be overseas on Mother’s Day. I thought initially that I would participate in the walk, anyway, and think of her as I walked; and then I thought: well, why not do the run instead? Isn’t that what runners are supposed to do at some point in their running careers — run in a race?

The more I thought about it, the more I thought that I should do it … and the more, somehow, I put off entering. Every time I went online to register for the event, I felt an inexplicable sense of antipathy, an unsettling ambivalence, that I felt ashamed of but that I couldn’t seem to ignore. I wondered if this ambivalence came from worrying that I would be the slowest runner on the course (I am a slow runner). Or if it came from my slight, but not negligble, aversion to being hemmed in by a crowd. Or from my sense that I would look stupid. Or from my fear of being lonely, out there on the course alone, without my beloved mother, whose company (and whose companionship) I so love.

And it was around about then, when I was thinking about loneliness, when I was thinking about how much I would miss my mother on Mother’s Day, that I finally came back to thinking about why I run in the first place. I had been telling myself, each time I went online to register for the Mother’s Day Classic, that it would be a failure of courage if I didn’t enter, now that I’d thought of doing so; that if I didn’t, I was being a coward. That, by not being brave enough to do what other runners do, I would be giving into my fears.

But I have never run in order to learn how to become more courageous. Or to learn how to overcome loneliness. Or to learn how to cope with crowds. I have never run in order to do what other runners do or think as other runners think. Above all, I have never run because I feel I should. Quite the contrary, in fact. I run because I want to. I run because it feels good. I run because, many years ago, when I was a young, confused woman with an eating disorder and no strong sense of self, I didn’t allow myself to do the things that made me feel good — and I am not that woman anymore, that woman who couldn’t allow herself to do the things she loved. That’s why I run.

And deciding to run in a race — any race, even a lovely, community-minded fun run for a good cause, like the Mother’s Day Classic — which triggers all the things that make me second-guess myself and feel bad about myself would be a decision that is the antithesis of everything about the decision I made to run in the first place.

What I see when I run:
Avenue of sheoaks

So I have put away the registration form for the Mother’s Day Classic for this year. I will miss my mother, and I will miss walking with her, but I know that we will walk it again another year, together.

And in the meantime, I will keep running because, to my joy, I find that I can.

PS For anyone who’s interested, I am still going to raise money for cancer. I have registered instead for Australia’s Biggest Morning Tea, which means that on one morning in May or June I will be baking the kind of scones of which Christina Patterson, whom I quoted at the start of this post, would approve, and I will be sharing them over a cup of tea with friends instead of running. And I’m looking forward to that morning already …

What I see when I run:
Reflections

Lately I’ve been reading about …

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