Unlovely

Other people’s words about … the view from the kitchen window

The kitchen window [of the railroad flat] looked into the gray courtyard where, on better days, there would be lines of clothes baking in the sun, although the floor of the deep courtyard, even in the prettiest weather, was a junkyard and a jungle. There were rats and bedsprings and broken crates. A tangle of city-bred vegetation: a sickly tree, black vines, a long-abandoned attempt at a garden.

From ‘The Ninth Hour’
by Alice McDermott

The world can seem very unlovely sometimes, can’t it? Sometimes the unloveliness is of the kind described in the passage above, which comes from poverty and dereliction and is visible from your kitchen window. And sometimes it comes from a more spiritual kind of unloveliness: a human lack of grace.

Shafts of sunlight in the scrub

There are times when I fret and rail at the unloveliness, times when it is all I can see. And there are other times — for the space of a breath, or a second, or a minute, or an hour — when I am overwhelmed by the loveliness that surrounds me, both within people and without.

Oystercatchers on the reef

I had a week of annual leave from work last week, which I spent at our falling-down house in Aldinga. The weather was dank and damp and (yes) somewhat unlovely, and, at least partly in response, my mood veered up and down erratically.

Autumn in the vineyards

But then, over the week, because I’m on a pause in my running at the moment, I found myself seeking out my bike again, taking myself for long, hypnotic rides along the coast and through the hills and paddocks and vineyards. And all around me, amidst the dampness and dankness, there were moments of loveliness, some of which you can see pictured in today’s post.

Rainclouds over the hills

Sometimes, I think, you just have to take moments of loveliness like this and carry them with you, through the unloveliness. Sometimes it’s all you can do.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Bright lights

Other people’s words about … living small

His approach, enjoying small spots of nature every day rather than epic versions of wilderness and escape, made sense to me. Big trips were the glaciers, cruise ships to Madagascar, the Verdon Gorge, the Cliffs of Moher, walking on the moon. Small trips were city parks with abraded grass, the occasional foray to the lake-woods of Ontario, a dirt pile. Smallness did not dismay me. Big nature travel — with its extreme odysseys and summit-fixated explorers — just seemed so, well, grandiose.The drive to go bigger and further just one more instance of the overreaching at the heart of Western culture.

I like smallness. I like the perverse audacity of someone aiming tiny.

From ‘Birds Art Life Death’
by Kyo Maclear

This week marks a new phase in the COVID-19 pandemic, as the world begins to open up again, economically. Here in South Australia, several restrictions will be lifted from 11 May. Cafes will reopen for outdoor eating; travel within the state (to holiday houses and campgrounds) will be encouraged; libraries will open their doors to patrons; swimming pools and community halls will be available for public use once more. All of these reopenings are accompanied by regulations that we could never have imagined prior to the pandemic, most of which are to do with the amount of people gathering in any one spot, and the distance they must keep between each other. But still, even with those rules in place for the foreseeable future, it’s clear that the lockdown is easing slowly.

And I am glad — glad that so few people are ill and dying here now in South Australia; glad that people whose livelihoods have been threatened by the closures of their businesses can now have a chance to make a living again; glad that people who have felt isolated and lonely during lockdown can go out into the world again and reconnect.

But also, I find myself feeling a little sad as the quiet time comes to an end.

Cafe life during the pandemic: the not-so-bright lights

Because, like Kyo Maclear, I, too, on the whole, like smallness. I don’t mean that I like illness or poverty or death — of course not. I don’t mean, either, that I can’t see how incredibly fortunate I’ve been (so far) during this pandemic, given that my health, and the health of all the people I love, remains intact. Given that I still have a job and an income.

But still, for the longest time — for as long as I can remember, in fact — I have felt out of tune with what Maclear calls the overreaching at the heart of Western culture. Over and over in my life, I have sought smallness over largeness; quietness over noise; scarcity over plenitude; closeness over distance; solitude over the throng. Often, this pursuit has felt less like a choice to me than a compulsion or a duty. Often, it has felt very lonely.

During the lockdown, though, as life has shrunk and quietened, as the crowds have thinned and ebbed away, I have seen my instincts and compulsions aligning themselves with the changing world around me. And in this quieter, smaller world, I have felt something inside of me loosen and release. I have felt, for once, at peace.

Through a window: looking up and out to the light

In the society I live in, a Western society like Maclear’s, we are encouraged to spend big, to think big. To live big. In tandem, we are encouraged to ignore the damage that results from doing so — the damage to the environment we live in, and the damage to the quiet places within ourselves, to the truths we feel in the smallness of our own hearts.

Coronavirus has affected the world on a global scale: its effects have been enormous, and they will be long-lasting. And yet, how perverse would it be, to borrow a word from Maclear, if what we take away from this catastrophe is a desire to live smaller, to aim tiny? How audacious? How — dare I say it — wonderful?

Deserted beach: this beautiful light

Lately I’ve been reading …

Beside the point

Other people’s words about … the world we live in

In the past few months [my eight-year-old son] Jack has become exasperated with my talking back to the radio. ‘You have to cheer up,’ he’ll say … And so I’ve been trying to keep most of my feelings about the news to myself. I’m grateful for the trust and sanguinity Jack displays these days, which makes me feel I’ve done something right. It’s only that, as the world seems to become an increasingly dangerous place, I wonder if happiness is the point. Maybe passion, something that can keep you satisfied inside your own head, independent of other people, is going to be worth more in Jack’s lifetime.

From ‘Lost and Wanted’
by Nell Freudenberger

The novel I’ve quoted from in today’s blog post was published in 2019, meaning that Freudenberger wrote it well before the coronavirus pandemic began. And here, in fact, when Freudenberger’s Boston-based narrator Helen mentions the world becoming an increasingly dangerous place, she is, in the context of the paragraphs that precede this passage, referring not to public health but to politics. Specifically, she is talking about the election of Donald Trump, and about the effect his policies have had on her and her world.

Still, Helen’s words ring eerily true to me in the world of 2020, this post-pandemic world. What is it that keeps us going when happiness is either inaccessible or beside the point? Is it passion, as Helen suggests? I’m not sure, but I do like the idea of finding something that can keep you satisfied inside your own head, independent of other people.

So tell me: what keeps you satisfied inside your own head? I’m curious. I’d love to know.

18 April 2020:
Aldinga Beach (my world)

Lately I’ve been reading …

That place

Other people’s words about … slowing down

He opened the window and let in the ocean, gulped in that grey air as though oxygen was enough to save him from the people in the house, watched the waves, noted the dark rip forming at the southern end of the beach. He ignored the sound of Charlie’s voice in the lounge, hilarious, oblivious, the sounds of the girl in the bathroom behind him, scrubbing insistently; called to mind the tentacles of the cloud from earlier, saw the colours he’d mix [if he were to paint it], the strokes, the shapes. After a few moments, his breathing slowed and he began to enter the place where no one else could come.

From‘Bluebottle‘
By Belinda Castles

It’s hard to know what to say, let alone what to write about, in times like this. Surely I am not alone in beginning to think of 2020 as the year of disasters — first, here in Australia, the bushfires; then, globally, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Low ebb

About the coronavirus, I have nothing useful to say. It is only just beginning to hit here in Australia, and — despite the chance that Australians had, over the last few weeks, to learn from people’s experiences of it in the northern hemisphere — it appears that we have done very little to protect ourselves. Though we are not yet in lockdown, I suspect we will be soon.

Birds of a feather

Before the coronavirus situation began to escalate here, I was lucky enough to have the chance to slip away for a few days to Kangaroo Island. The photos in this post are from those few days.

Half of the island — yes, half — was destroyed by the bushfires earlier this year. Even without the pandemic, it is a time of great sadness on the Island.

Exposed

But I have nothing to say about that sadness, either. Instead, my photographs here celebrate, I hope, the beauty of the unburned half of the Island. In times of sadness, we have to find things to celebrate, yes?

Enter that place

Also, to borrow Belinda Castles’s words from the quote above and to use them in a different context, we have to slow down, despite our panic; we have to breathe in fresh air. We have to turn inward, finding and enter[ing] that place where no one else [can] come.

In the end, we have to find a way, within ourselves, to survive.

On wonder, and grief

Other people’s words about … this amazing world

Look at the sky. (It’s amazing. It’s always amazing.)

From ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’
by Matt Haig

I’ve found myself at a loss for words to write in here recently. The loss of words carries over to images, too, and therefore to other media like my Instagram account — I haven’t taken a photograph for weeks. I haven’t even been able to pick up a pen and write in my own diary.

I am, in general, someone who is readily able to immerse myself in the wonder of the natural world. The photographs I take and post, here and on Instagram, of the scrub and the sea and the sky and the sand and the sunset, are the physical manifestation of this. The habit of wondering is one I taught myself, years ago, as a way to manage the bouts of anxiety and sadness I’ve always experienced. Call it mindfulness, call it relaxation therapy, call it diversion, call it meditation, it’s what I do: it’s how I move through the world. It’s how I stay present, how I stay humble.

But since the end of last year, ever since the fires began raging here, I haven’t been able to respond that way to the world around me: to access that wonder. In fact, wonder feels frivolous — insensitive, tasteless — when the world around you, the living world, is burning, burning.

Here in South Australia, in the last couple of weeks, we’ve had milder weather, and even some rainfall. As a result, the fires, for now, are largely under control, though when the heat returns — as it will — so, I think, may the fires.

But in the wake of those fires, the land in those areas has burned to nothingness. The trees and the animals have been killed. There is nothing left. There is nothing to wonder at.

What I feel now, instead of wonder, is rage and grief. These fires should not have happened. For thousands of years, before 1788, the people who lived here managed the land, and they managed fire. They co-existed with the natural world. In the last two hundred years, we have lost that ability, and with it we are losing the land.

There are books you can read about this, if you want to know more — books that were written well before this year’s fires, books that studied the past and made warnings about the future. I would recommend, in particular, Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (about which, you can read more here).

There are also things you can do, right now — organisations to which you can donate your money, or your time, or your talent. If you are an Australian, there are choices you can make today, as you go about your daily life, about how you spend any disposable income you might have — for example, where you buy your food, where you go on holiday — so that your money goes towards local communities affected by the fires (for example, #bookthemout and Empty Esky). I hope that, though movements such as these are aimed at helping the people affected by the fires, they will also, as a natural consequence, help the other living beings affected by the fires. By contributing to these areas, you contribute to all the lives within those areas.

I would add: do these things now. Please. But also, do them forever.

Bushfire prevention is a long-term strategy. It’s a lifestyle choice, and it’s a political choice. If we are to change the course of the future in Australia, if we are to change the way we live in our environment, if we are to learn to co-exist in this Australian environment, then we have to change things forever.

Until we manage to do this, I, like many other Australians, will continue to feel rage and grief instead of wonder.

Metronome

Other people’s words about … feeling wrong

I walked out of the class then, back into the hallway, thinking that this was another thing I didn’t understand: how you can work so hard on a report, you can even earn an A, but you still walk away feeling like you’ve done something wrong.

Like you, yourself, are terribly wrong.

From ‘The Thing about Jellyfish’
by Ali Benjamin

I mentioned in previous posts that I’ve been tired recently, too tired to run very far. And honestly? I still feel that way. I’m still tired, and though, having had a couple of weeks off running altogether when I was sick with a cold, I’ve come back to it, I’m still lacking energy and verve, still lacking that feeling of rightness that I usually associate with running.

At the moment, in fact, I’m running more because I remember the sense of rightness and joy that running gives me than because I actually feel it in the present.

View on the run (1)
Pathway to the horizon

In a funny way, the quote in today’s post encapsulates not only the way I’ve felt all my life — the feeling that I’m wrong; that I get things wrong; that I’ll never, ever get them right — but also the particular feeling that I have right now, when I’m out on the path, running (and stopping, mid-run, to take photographs like the ones in today’s post). The truth is, I feel wrong, right now, when I run. But I keep running, anyway.

View on the run (2)
Three little ducks

Meanwhile, I’ve been getting back to reading novels for younger people again over the last few months, these months of tiredness, after a long time away from them — novels written for young adults, for middle-grade readers, for kids. And I’ve loved every minute of my reading. I’ve been reminded, reading these books, of all the things I used to love about them: the poignancy of the voices of protagonists like thirteen-year-old Suzy in The Thing about Jellyfish, the freshness, the truth. Her words ring true across the generations, at least for me.

I’d turned away from reading books for younger people over the last few years, because I thought that I couldn’t write for that audience anymore, and because I thought I was the wrong reader, the wrong writer.

View on the run (3)
Baby almonds

But maybe that’s the thing: maybe, sometimes, you have to do things, anyway, regardless of how wrong you feel doing it. Maybe the rightness comes from doing it anyway — despite, or because.

View on the run (4)
Two’s company

So I’m out there running these days, both despite and because. And whether the joy is there, whether the feeling of rightness is there, I’ll keep running like this until something stops me, or until the joy and the rightness return.

Because there’s a rhythm to these things, I think: a rhythm to the pounding of my feet on the footpath, a metronome ticking away, the same way that life ticks away.

And that rhythm, that ticking, is the only true, right thing I know.

Chasing clouds

Other people’s words about … running

Some athletes love to talk about what a simple sport running is. They say that all you need is a pair of sneakers. That’s not true. What you need is some freedom of movement and the ability to see a clear path ahead of you. It took me years to see that path and to find my pace. When I finally got moving, I hoped I might be able to run forever.

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

After I wrote my last post here, in which I mentioned that I’d been too tired to run very much recently, I caught a cold and stopped running altogether for almost three weeks. It was probably the longest period I’ve gone without running since I took the habit up again, back in 2015, at the age of forty-five.

This past Thursday, I went for my first run since catching that cold, feeling fragile and wobbly and exhausted. I was so tired that I ran half the distance that I usually run, and I stopped at the midway point — partly to rest, partly just to soak up the wonder of being out under the sky again, with my feet thudding against the ground.

I sat on a rock looking out over the sailboats anchored in the cove, and I thanked whatever grace it is that allows me to continue to run. There are so many people who would like to run but can’t, whether because of disability or illness, injury or lack of opportunity. I remembered that I am one of the lucky ones: that it is my great good fortune and privilege to be able to run, however slow my pace, however short my distance.

I took the photographs in today’s post as I was sitting on those rocks, midway through that run. It was a short, tiring, exhausting, feeble run, and it left me feeling both humbled and blessed.

And that is what I love most about this privileged pursuit of mine: the gratitude it feels me with. The joy that it brings.

Paradise

Other people’s words about … the ocean at night

They [drive] across the train tracks where they see a sign proclaiming PARADISE JUST 7 KMS AHEAD.

Paradise is a caravan park. Her father kills the engine and sits still, gripping the wheel. Rose can hear the ocean; the sudden intake of its breath, as though it has remembered something, something terrible, but finding there is nothing it can do, it breathes out again. The night is dark and starless.

‘It’s as good a place as any,’ he finally says.

From ‘The Midnight Dress’
by Karen Foxlee

Usually, when I quote passages describing the sea on this blog, I accompany them with whatever latest shots I have taken of the sea. So it seems more than a little ironic to me that I don’t have any recent shots of the ocean at all to accompany the beautiful quote in today’s post. I live by the sea! I love the sea! How can I not have any new photos of it?

But it’s been a hot, windy spring in South Australia, creating conditions that are less than photogenic, particularly here where I live, by the coast. And in addition, I’ve been busy and tired for the last few weeks, settling into my new job, working new hours, stepping back into life after a period of withdrawal.

Still, I’m quoting this description of the sea today anyway, because I love the metaphor in it: the idea that you can hear the sea breathing.

Hot, blue, windy sky

Besides, like all good metaphorical words, Karen Foxlee’s words, which I’ve quoted above, aren’t really (or aren’t only) about the sea. Have Rose and her father really arrived at a paradisiacal destination? Is any destination, at any stage in our lives, paradisiacal?

No. Of course not.

Seagull surviving the heat by the Port River

And so back to me, and to the real reason for my lack of sea-themed photographs. One of my favourite times for taking photos of the sea is when I’m running right alongside it: either on the foreshore path, or on the shore itself, by the water’s edge. But I’ve been so tired over the last few weeks — exhausted, actually, to the point of illness — that I haven’t had the energy to run much, if at all.

I am grateful for my new job, which, in comparison to my previous work situation seems virtually paradisiacal. All the same, I’ve been trudging through my days, and the sea has been, at best, a distant companion.

And yet. The place I am now, this place I have arrived at in my life — a little by design, mostly by chance — is, as Rose’s father says, as good a place as any.

I’ll settle for this life I’m living, paradise or no.

Scenes from my life over the last few weeks

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Say it loud, say it true

Other people’s words about … writing

Dan sits at his desk [to write his book] and closes the door to the hall, to the world. Winter unfolds around the cottage, June to July, and time flutters to the ground like pages. Too few pages. Never enough.

From ‘The Breeding Season’
by Amanda Niehaus

A few weeks ago, right at the end of my first week in my new job, I spent a weekend with a group of women who are writers and artists, some of whom I’d known for many years, a couple of whom I’d never met before. We walked along the beach, and we talked, and we laughed, and we ate, and we drank gin and tonic. And then we parted ways again, some of us driving back along the winding coastal roads towards the city to a life made entirely of writing and drawing, some of us driving back to a life made partly of writing and partly of child-rearing or paid work outside of the home.

Lunch break view (1): Climbing the mast

The woman who had organised the weekend had planned it, loosely, as a writers’ retreat, and indeed some of the women — a couple of whom had strict deadlines to meet with their publishers — did write during the weekend. The rest of us sat outside around a table on the sun-drenched balcony, sharing stories of our writing: our latest work in progress, recent reviews, launches we’d attended, talks we’d given, and so on.

I say we and us, but the first-person pronoun sits queasily with me, because I haven’t published anything for ten years, and because I’ve been through periods in recent years where I’ve consciously stopped writing altogether and tried to move on to other things in my life. This year, during the early months of my freelance life, I started writing again, but the process has continued to feel tentative, precarious (that word again!), and filled with doubt and fear.

Lunch break view (2): Red and blue

And so I felt a little like an intruder at that sun-splashed table on the balcony overlooking the sea. Sure, I have stories to tell about writing and about the books I’ve written, but they’re stories anchored in the past, not the present. Mostly, then, I stayed silent, without contributing when the talk turned back to writing. I listened to the things my companions were discussing, the things they said they thought about as they wrote. And as I listened, I reflected — as I have so many times over the last year or two — that what stops me from writing these days (or, more accurately, what stops me from completing any of the writing I start these days) isn’t so much a lack of confidence in my writing as it is a lack of confidence in my self: who I am, where I fit in the world. What I experience. What I think. What I stand for. What I believe. What I feel.

What I want to say.

Lunch break view (3): Seagull companion

For me, writing has always been about having a voice. In essence, it’s about having a conversation on the page with my readers. And so, implicitly, it’s about feeling that I have the right to express myself, to speak up, to tell a story: my story. It makes sense, then, that in the last few years, as I’ve found it increasingly hard to talk aloud — in conversation, I mean, to family, to friends, to peers, to colleagues — about the way I experience the world, my world, I have also found it increasingly hard to write.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever write or publish another book again in my life, and I understand that, in the scheme of things, whether I do or not is probably neither here nor there. But I do know that in order to write again, I will have to learn to believe in my voice once more, and to be able to listen to myself somehow, and to manage to see myself not as an intruder but as someone who belongs in this world. Until I can do these things, I will keep letting those pages of mine — the actual pages and the metaphorical ones, the pages of time, the pages of my life — flutter, like Dan’s in the passage I’ve quoted above, to the ground.

Weekend view: under the arch

Sometimes when I write posts like this on my blog, they feel self-indulgent, self-referential, self-absorbed. And perhaps my posts are all of these things. But perhaps, too, there’s a reader out there somewhere, reading this post, who has felt (some of) the things I’m writing about today, and who hears her voice reflected back to her as she reads. I want you to know, reader out there, that you are not alone in this world. Your voice matters. Your short life matters. You matter.

So go on, say what you have to say: and say it loud, say it true. This world, this life, belongs to you, too.

Sigh

Other people’s words about … living by the sea

We walk back to our car, the morning seeming eerily quiet. I’m used to living close enough to the shore that occasionally we can hear the gulls in the distance, crying. Here, there’s nothing. With the cold, there’s no insect noise, no bird noise. Just the wind moving the leaves, the branches swaying, the world, faintly sighing.

From ‘Fragments of the Lost’
by Megan Miranda

Once, years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I left the house by the sea in which I was living to stay for a couple of weeks with a man with whom I thought I was in love. He lived interstate, in a suburb miles from the coast: a suburb of twisting cul-de-sacs lined with neat brick houses and small, grassy parks, each of which had a set of swings, and a see-saw, and a coin-operated barbecue.

With the passing of each day in that man’s house, I felt a terrible, growing sense of fatigue and disenchantment. At first, I thought that I must be ill. I felt tired, so tired: my limbs seemed stiff and leaden, and each night, as I lay in my bed in his guest room, sleep blanketed me so rapidly, so heavily, that I felt as though it was smothering me.

Then I thought that, rather than becoming ill, I was falling out of love. This was, in fact, partly the case: from the moment I first walked through his back door, I felt myself growing angrier and angrier with this man, whose life was nothing like I had thought it would be, and who (transported from the town where I had met him, my home town) seemed a different man, a different beast altogether, from the man I had been drawn to just a few weeks earlier.

But finally, as my days in his house passed, I came to realise that my strongest feeling of all, beyond the bewildering exhaustion, beyond the unjustifiable anger, was that I was lost. I mean the word in its literal sense: not as a metaphor for some kind of emotional loss (although that was undoubtedly a part of what I was feeling; I was, after all, very young), but as a geographical descriptor. I could not locate myself in the twisting, winding, circling streets of his suburb. I could not tell north from south, east from west. I felt as though I was in a maze. I knew that it was a maze of my own making, and I knew that I had to find a way out.

And it seemed to me that if only I could hear the sea the way I could hear it when I was at home (its sighs, its mutters, its roars), if only I could hear the gulls crying in the skies above me, the way Megan Miranda describes in the passage I’ve quoted above, I would know where I was, and I would no longer be lost.

Eventually, I found my way out of that maze, and I got myself safely back home. Still, I’ve never forgotten the weeks I spent in that man’s house. I came to understand, during that time, that the sea, for me, had become a kind of compass in my life, both literal and metaphorical. That the sea gives me a sense of place. A sense of direction. A sense of home.

Here, there’s nothing, Miranda’s narrator writes, describing her visit to a place far from the sea. Perhaps that’s what the sea gives most of all to those of us who live beside it: a sense of something outside of ourselves. A sense of presence.

Sea and sand

Lately I’ve been reading about …