Only [dis]connect

Other people’s words about … beauty

I wondered if a more complex language like [my mother’s native language] Korean had a singular word to describe the feeling of getting off a long shift of a physically demanding job and finding that, for at least half an hour after, everything, every last thing, was too beautiful to bear.

Jenny asked the question so simply — ‘Okay, what do you want to talk about?’ — and I nearly reached across the table and grabbed her hands back, whispered thanks against each of her knuckles. I was about to ask her opinion on lakes and oceans — which did she prefer, contained and musty, or vast and salty? — when she suddenly sat up straight, eyes wide. ‘So — what did you think of that meeting today? Hold nothing back.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I don’t know, it was fine.’

from Pizza Girl
by Jean Kyoung Frazier

I thought of Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where Are You? when I read the passage above. In Beautiful World, Rooney’s characters variously mourn the loss of the sense they used to have that they were moving through a beautiful world, or they lament the ugliness of the everyday world, or they remark upon what Rooney calls a hidden reality: the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world.

Sunset, early July 2022.

I think this is what Kyuoung Frazier’s narrator is getting at. She wants to tell Jenny about the beautiful world she sees all around her — but Jenny, like everyone else in the narrator’s life, either doesn’t want to hear what she has to say or doesn’t know how to hear it.

Some years ago when I was going through a difficult patch, a friend of mine offered to exchange a daily photograph with me via text message. ‘We’ll just send each other a picture of something we see,’ she said. ‘Something we like. Something that makes us smile. We’ll share our pictures, and it’ll be a way to reach out. To say hello.’

Dune flowers, early July 2022.

We ended up exchanging daily photographs for over a year, and it was a way to say hello, but it was also so much more. What I loved most about our exchange, beyond the sense of connection it gave me with another human being, was the knowledge that we were each finding something beautiful in our day and then sharing it with someone else. Passing the beauty on.

Maybe we should all share more beauty. Maybe it doesn’t matter if beauty is fleeting and makes us feel fragile. Maybe that’s exactly why we should keep on sharing it.

Before sunset, early July 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Revelation

Other people’s words about … secrets

‘Philip,’ [his mother Rose] said. ‘There are things I could tell you.’
‘Tell them,’ Philip said.
‘No.’
‘Why not? I’m prepared.’
She turned, looked at [Philip’s father Owen] slumped on the sofa. ‘Because I don’t believe that just because something’s a secret it therefore by definition has to be revealed,’ Rose said. ‘Keeping certain secrets secret is important to — the general balance of life, the common utility.’

From ‘The Lost Language of Cranes

by David Leavitt

I have always been fascinated by people like Philip’s mother Rose in the passage above: people who keep their own counsel. I have a tendency to do the opposite — to over-share, to talk to people for advice, to feel guilty if the life I lead isn’t entirely transparent. I’m not sure why. I may just be wired that way, but I suspect that years of therapy during adolescence and early adulthood ingrained this way of being in me. When you are used to talking things through with someone on a weekly basis, it can feel odd — unsafe, even — once you stop.

Gnarled trunk, early July 2022.

I like Rose’s matter-of-fact statement that secrets don’t have to be revealed. Sometimes, when I am uncertain about a course of action or a decision I have to make, I think of the oath that I’m told doctors must take: ‘First, do no harm.’ I find this oath, applied to life in general, one of the most useful creeds I know.

And so I find myself thinking that Rose may be right. If keeping a secret doesn’t harm anyone, then why feel compelled to reveal it? Why not learn to live in silence with one’s own truths?

Waterways, early July 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Mysterious

Other people’s words about … ageing (yes, again, but bear with me …)

I was not a happy or a healthy young person. I had chronic asthma exacerbated by smoking; I was unfit; my diet was ordinary. ‘Orphaned’ by 29, I spent most of my 20s and 30s in grief. I was deeply anxious with little confidence, my fretful neediness causing relationship problems. For many of those years, I cried every week.
The day I turned 50, I felt a mysterious surge of what I could only think of as power. A deep optimism, energy and peacefulness took up space inside me. Give or take a few crises since, it hasn’t really left. In my mid-50s, I’m physically and emotionally stronger, healthier, more calmly loved and loving, more productive, more organised, smarter, wealthier and exponentially happier than I ever was in my youth. In the past four years I’ve really cried about three times, on one occasion because a good friend died.

From ‘The Luminous Solution

by Charlotte Wood

In my last blog post I talked about how a feeling of invisibility is something many women complain of experiencing as they grow older — and about how that feeling of invisibility doesn’t have to be (only) a negative experience. I talked about how feeling invisible can confer a certain grace and dignity to the way we live our lives.

It was my mother who reminded me subsequently of Charlotte Wood’s words about ageing. I have heard other women in their fifties and sixties express similar things and while so far I can’t say I share their feelings or their experiences, I find a certain comfort in their words. In my early fifties, I am, unlike Wood, neither more energetic nor healthier than I was as a younger woman; nor am I more productive or smarter. And I certainly don’t cry any less frequently.

And yet. The words optimism and peacefulness resonate deeply with me. I have fewer expectations of life than I did in my twenties and thirties — less hope, perhaps, but also, strangely, more joy.

Optimism, peacefulness, hope, joy. These are all invisible things. Maybe that’s what makes them feel so profound.

Shining sea, Late May 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Spectrum

Other people’s words about … being invisible

Sandra is the contrail of light left on the back of the eye by the sun. Like so much of Muriel’s life she is invisible. Muriel thinks that there is some dignity in that, yet it leaves a life so immaterial it may be erased in a blink.

From ‘On Swift Horses

by Shannon Pufahl

The older we get, the more invisible we feel, or so the story goes — particularly if you are a woman. I think it’s natural to feel some grief in response to this. For so many of us, it can feel as though we are losing something — our sex appeal, perhaps, or our looks, or our matriarchal role in the family, or our authority in the workforce.

Ragged sky, May 2022.

When I was a younger woman I was proud of how articulate I was. I was fluent with words, both spoken and written, and I felt that people were listening to me, hearing me, because of this. As the years pass, though, I feel this less and less. Moving from early to middle age and beyond feels to me like a process of being muted. That’s not the same thing as feeling invisible, I know, but it’s clearly on the same spectrum.

But I like Shannon Pufahl’s perspective on invisibility, particularly invisibility of the female kind. I like the way she weighs up both the dignity and the immateriality of an invisible life, its grace and its insignificance. It seems to me a metaphor for everything that we think of when we talk of a person’s life: the sorrow of it. The joy.

Ragged sea, May 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

 

Only connect: Reunion

Other people’s words about connection

Maude cranes around to look and Cormac looks too, close enough to see them, all quite young and glacially made up with one man of height and handsomeness towering over the rest and another, a man to the tall one’s left, cocking his head and nodding in Cormac’s direction meaningfully.
It is Senan. Cormac waves …
He hasn’t seen Senan in person for months and yet his vision still telescopes in, urgent and unreconstructed, so that Cormac sees and knows again he loves him with a scratchy passion that returns as reliably as a rash. It is not a nostalgic feeling and casts no shadow, existing always in a self-sustaining now.
How acute it is: immediate deja vu.

From ‘We Were Young

by Niamh Campbell

I love this passage from Niahm Campbell about a man reuniting with someone he loves after the two of them have spent some time apart. Cormack, the character in Campbell’s novel, seems unable to commit to one person, whether man or woman; he moves from one relationship or liaison to another. But as a backdrop to all his attempts to remain unfettered there is his love for Senan, a man who is smart enough, perhaps, to keep himself unavailable and therefore always desirable and lovable.



Sunlight and trees, April 2022.


Who hasn’t at some time in their life loved someone who was unavailable? Or, moving beyond relationships and intimacy, who hasn’t wanted something that was eternally just out of reach?


Grasstree, May 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

How to go on

Other people’s words about … hard work

He worked construction down on the river, where they were putting up a new footbridge. His own job involved the careful freighting of materials onto the platform where the crane rested on the water. There were times when he thought he’d get sick from the motion of the barge, the constant shifting underfoot. There were times when his hands hurt from lifting and pushing and turning, tightening the straps until they wouldn’t give, tightening them until it seemed impossible that anyone would ever be able to set them loose again. Days when his back ached and his stomach hurt and his hair was peppered with grit, when his eyes burned, and his nose burned from the stench of oil and of the river, which was dying a slow, choked death via a series of minor diversions. But then, on bright winter days, he’d look up and see the geese tracking across the sky, moving up there free as air, and he’d think that there was something beautiful left in the world. And he could go on like that, as long as there was something beautiful left in the world.

From ‘Filthy Animals

by Brandon Taylor

I work in a call centre, an office job, unlike Brandon Taylor’s character Hartjes in the passage above. It’s not a physically demanding job. Even so, there are days when my head aches from breathing in stale, recycled office air, when my hips ache from sitting too long, when my voice croaks from talking for hours on the phone, when my stomach hurts from choking down my emotion after a difficult phone call. In the end, just like Hartjes, I feel my job in my body.



Neighbourhood frangipani tree, Taperoo, April 2022.


What grabs me most in the passage above is the river, in all its symbolism, dying its slow, choked death. Like Hartjes, I find myself looking up from my day, seeking the sky, seeking the air, seeking a glimpse of beauty and wonder.

That brief hint of beauty. That brief reminder of how to carry on.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Absolution

Other people’s words about … being loved

We were sitting on a cushioned bench [in the pub]. Eddie had one thick thigh crossed over the other, and he was wagging his right foot gently. He was wearing beautiful Italian brogues and talking to the man next to him, laughing at something a little too loudly, and then suddenly he turned to me, rested his hand on my leg and asked softly was I okay.
‘You okay there, pet? Can I get you something?’
It was there in the tone. I knew that I was loved as I had never been before. I don’t mean that Eddie loved me with remarkable passion or insight. I don’t mean that I felt most fully myself with him. I mean that, in the strangest way, I felt forgiven. For as long as I could remember there’d been a vague disquiet in me, as if I lived in the shadow of some humiliation whose particulars I could not recall. Until Eddie, until he absolved me, I hadn’t known there was any other way to feel.

From ‘When Light is Like Water

by Molly McCloskey

In the last few years I’ve noticed that when I’m reading a book or watching a movie the two kinds of scenes that most move me are those where two people connect for the first time (mostly, though not always, through falling in love) and those where someone forgives someone else.

Both kinds of scenes make me cry. I’m still not sure whether my tears come from a place of catharsis or from a place of yearning.


Port Adelaide, early April 2022.

I particularly love how Molly McCloskey’s narrator, Rachel, elucidates her experience of falling in love with her first husband in the passage above: how she moves away from romance to something gentler, and kinder, and deeper.

Like Rachel, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t live with a sense that I was inherently wrong, flawed, in need of forgiveness. I sense that my experience is a relatively common one, but I also sense that in me the feeling is perhaps particularly strong.


Aldinga wetlands, April 2022.

How to manage anxiety: Be kind. Be curious. I read these words somewhere once. I remind myself of them from time to time. In their simplicity and compassion, they are helpful. What McCloskey’s narrator Rachel understands in the passage above is that kindness is inherent in true love. I think that’s why her words move me so much.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Only connect: One moment apart

Other people’s words about … connection

‘We should probably go back [to the party].’
‘We?’ Lionel shook his head. ‘You can do whatever you want. I think I’ll hang out here for a while.’
Charles sighed then. There, [standing] resting his cheek against the wall, he looked a little helpless. Lionel mirrored him, turning, resting his cheek against the cool plaster.
‘You mind if I hang?’
‘Suit yourself. Not my house,’ Lionel said, but then he saw it. Relief. Charles was shy too.
‘Okay, tough guy.’
Lionel felt their breathing sync. The eye contact had reached the point of being ridiculous, but it wasn’t uncomfortable or uneasy. Lionel wasn’t even sure if they were seeing each other anymore. His own eyes had gone slightly crossed, and Charles broke up into blurry segments. But they were in another moment apart. They had returned to their own tempo, just the two of them. Lionel felt free of other people’s expectations for how he should act and be. He felt free of his expectations for himself.
It was like kindness, as simple as that.

From ‘Filthy Animals

by Brandon Taylor

In my last post a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about not having the words to describe the life I live now, the life so many of us live now. And that hasn’t changed. I’m still feeling quiet, still waiting things out. In a sense, I think the whole world is in a waiting phase right now as we move into the third year of the coronavirus pandemic.

I feel as though I’m waiting myself out, too, until things make more sense again.


Port Adelaide, February 2022.

Meantime, moments like the one Brandon Taylor describes in the passage I’ve quoted above continue to bring me succour. As Taylor tells it, this is a moment passing between two people, a moment of wordless understanding. Whatever happens next to Charles and Lionel, we know that they will be richer for this moment they have shared.

When I read about moments like this, I feel richer, too.




Aldinga Beach, February 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Wordless

Other people’s words about … the things we say

All that talking, years of reading: There was a time I thought that all language might contain something of value, but most of life is flat and boring and the things we say are too. Or maybe it’s that most of life is so much stranger than language is able to make room for, so we say the same dead things and hope maybe the who and how of what is said can make it into what we mean.

From ‘Want

by Lynn Steger Strong

I’ve been posting less and frequently on my blog over the last few months, I know. And it’s not, as you might think, because I have become more active on other (more instant) social media, though I can see the appeal of posting photographs (excluding selfies) on Instagram. 



Spring flowers, Aldinga Scrub, 2021.

In fact my quietness on this blog is more to do with the fact that most of life is so much stranger than language is able to make room for, as Lynn Steger Strong puts it so wonderfully in the passage I’ve quoted above. The Covid-19 pandemic, now entering its third year globally, has left me feeling, in the truest part of me, wordless. I am surviving, for which I am grateful. I am getting on with my life. But I don’t know how to put that into words very well, or at least not in the form of a blog post. I enjoy blogging, and I like my space in the blogosphere, so I hope that this phase will pass. But in the meantime … here I am, not finding the language I need to say what I want to say.





Pathway, Aldinga Scrub, 2022.

Another reason for my quietness on this blog is that I’ve been doing a different kind of writing in my spare time recently, which is to say I’ve started writing fiction again. As I mentioned in my previous post, last year I submitted the manuscript of a middle-grade novel to my agent, who is currently trying to find a publisher for it. (No luck yet.) And now, somehow, I find myself writing a novel for adults. I don’t know whether any of the fiction I’ve written since the beginning of the pandemic will ultimately be publishable, but somehow, entirely unexpectedly, it seems that I’ve found the courage to try again, and because of that very unexpectedness, I’m allowing myself to honour my courage for now and see what happens.

Life continues, albeit quietly and unexpectedly, I suppose is what I’m saying. Sometimes I have the words for it and can compose a blog post about it and sometimes I don’t. But I will keep trying. That’s a promise.





Wordless, 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

 

Still here

Other people’s words about … the safety of books

I walk from the museum to the train and take it downtown where I get off and go to a coffee shop I used to go to before I worked full time. I was in grad school for six years — English literature, mid- to late-twentieth century, British and American, forgotten or actively discarded female writers: Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner, Jean Rhys, Nella Larsen, Lucia Berlin. There was a time when I thought giving books to other people — showing them their richness, their quiet, secret, temporary safety — could be a useful way to spend one’s life. I spent another five years as a part-time adjunct, waitress, admin assistant. Once, for six months, I wrote quizzes to accompany the bad books put out by an education corporation, but I was fired because I couldn’t keep my sentences short enough.

From ‘Want

by Lynn Steger Strong

It’s been a while since I posted here, for which I apologise. In the last few months I’ve moved house, lost my car in a car crash and sprained my ankle. In addition (and somewhat unexpectedly), the house I bought and moved into had no running water beyond a garden tap, and the sale of the house I moved out of fell through three days before settlement.



In the garden (1).

But I’m still here in the new house, still alive, still breathing. And Lizzie, the little cat who appeared in my garden at the old house two years ago, is with me, too. Though she still won’t allow human touch, she has managed the move quite splendidly so far. On the advice of the cat rescue organisation who helped me trap her and move her into the new house, I’m keeping her indoors for several weeks before attempting to allow her back outside. I hope that when I do open the door for her into the garden she’ll choose to stay with me.

I hope, I hope, I hope.



In the garden (2).

When I moved into my old house, there were no trees and the garden was a bare patch of ground covered with a pervasive weed called caltrop (three-corner jacks). I pulled out all the caltrop and then planted trees and watched them grow. When Lizzie arrived years later, she sat beneath the trees or wandered down the path beneath them from one end of the garden to the other. In the end, though I often think of myself as an indoor person, as someone who lives more richly in my inner world than the outer world, I found it far harder to leave those trees, that garden, than I did to leave the house itself.

My new house is bigger than the last one, and still within walking distance of the beach, but once again there are no trees. So I’m back to planting trees again, back to watching them grow.



Still within walking distance.

In the midst of it all, as the pandemic continues, as South Australia finally opens its borders to the rest of the world, I’ve also submitted a manuscript to my literary agent and written the first draft of another one. The manuscript I submitted to my agent is doing the rounds and has so far been rejected by six publishers, and I don’t know if it will ever be published. And the other manuscript, the first draft of which I’ve just completed — well, it’s still very much a first draft. It has a long, long way to go, many more drafts, before it will tell the story I want it to tell.

But both as a reader and as a writer, I still believe, like Lynn Steger Strong’s narrator in the passage I’ve quoted above, that giving books to other people — showing them their richness, their quiet, secret, temporary safety — [can] be a useful way to spend one’s life. After all this time, all these years, reading and writing still enrich my days and fill my life with purpose.

I’m still here. I hope you are, too.