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 …

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:

Snatched phrases: the sea

‘The house [on the clifftops] was tiny;
it didn’t take long to snoop around it.
But there was nothing here, no one, the sea.’

From ‘Bluebottle’
by Belinda Castles

View from the clifftops:
nothing here, no-one, the sea.

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.

Chasing clouds

‘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

We recently spent a week in the caravan staying in our favourite spot, perched on the clifftops at Yorke Peninsula. It was mid-Autumn, and the weather, like the view, changed every day, sometimes every minute.

During one of the sunnier hours, I went for a run in the bushland that lies behind the dunes and cliffs. I took off my running shoes and ran barefoot along the winding sandy track that rises and dips through the scrubland. Despite the lack of rain in the previous months, the bushland here seemed to me quite lush (at least by South Australian standards).

I finished my run at the base of the highest dune, and then I trundled up to the top of the dune to look down on the beach and shoreline below.

It was a moment of silver seas and blue skies — a moment worth celebrating.

I see you

Other people’s words about … love

The bright lights had been switched off and the place was lit only by small windows. Then there she was — Stella — the top of her head highlighted as she looked down, reading. It never ceased to amaze him the thrill he got at seeing her. Catching her unawares.

From ‘Midwinter Break
by Bernard MacLaverty

Every time I read these words by Bernard MacLaverty, I feel my breath catch. That’s how it feels to see someone you love, isn’t it? That’s how those tiny, stolen glimpses feel.

The photo accompanying this post is one I took on my latest camping trip to Yorke Peninsula with my partner Wayne. It was very early summer, as you may remember: fan flower season. One evening just after sunset, as I wandered from the beach back to our campsite on the cliffs, I came to a fork in the path where there were fan flower bushes growing at every corner.

And there, in the dim glow of the early-evening sky, the petals of the fan flowers — which in the warm, bright light of the middle of the day are a strong, cheery blue — seemed to shine for a few moments: pale, spectral, luminescent.

Perhaps my talk of fan flowers seems an odd match for the words I began this post with. But this was another one of those tiny, stolen moments we’re given in life from time to time, and it seems to me a good way to honour Bernard MacLaverty’s lovely words …

PS One other thing: a quick shout-out to my mother, who celebrates her birthday today, and who is a person responsible for many lovely moments in my life .

Walk on

Other people’s words about … things falling apart

When you’ve passed through a difficult period, it can be tempting to yearn for a delivery of good fortune, or for experience that feels redemptive somehow. You want suffering to have purpose, for pain to be justified by wisdom or abundance or growth.

from Weekend Reading
by Gena of The Full Helping blog

I had an odd weekend recently, going through some of my old journals and photos for writing-related reasons. The entries I’d written in my journals back then, during a time in my twenties when I lived overseas — first in Texas, then England, then Germany, Cairo, Jakarta — were vividly descriptive of a life I no longer lead, nor will ever lead again. Those journal entries threw me back to a ‘me’ I hadn’t exactly forgotten but somehow, foolishly, thought I had let go of.

Although I have let go of that me, mostly.

My life, during those years I lived overseas, was filled with extremes — of loneliness, joy, excitement, fear, love, doubt, sorrow, terror, grief. There was one particularly difficult period, living in Jakarta with my then boyfriend, when one thing after another went terribly wrong, and I felt as though I was walking through my days — those days that made up my life as I then knew it — with my head down, just waiting for the next blow.

Like Gena, in the words I’ve quoted above, sometimes in Jakarta I just wanted those most difficult days to have a meaning. A purpose. But they didn’t. Even now, when I look back on those times, I find them hard to make sense of. I think I always will.

Gena quotes the Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron, who says the following in her book When Things Fall Apart:

We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

These days, I would quibble with Pema Chodron’s use of the word healing — isn’t that just another way of saying you can solve things? — but then, I’m not a Buddhist. Or a Nun.

Still, I like the notion of things falling apart and then coming together again, only to fall apart once more; I find it immensely comforting. Even more, I like Pema Chodron’s simple statement, neither defeatist not celebratory, that life is just like that.

It is just like that, isn’t it?


I took the photographs accompanying today’s posts during our most recent camping trip in Yorke Peninsula. It was mid-November, and the late-spring flowers dappled the dunes. Fan flowers, common sea heath, grasses, sedges, acacias and other flowers I couldn’t identify and don’t usually see at home had sprung up everywhere, in every bare patch of sandy ground, in every sheltered nook, in every little cranny in the rocks. Walking amongst them, I felt things come together again in my heart, for a little while.

And then — well, then I let go. And walked on.

Exquisite

Other people’s words about … surfing

[My wife Caroline] was reading on a hotel balcony directly above the break. The waves were head-high, barely clearing the rocks on the sets. After every ride, I would look up. Caroline’s nose would still be in her book. I would yell. She would wave. She saw none of my rides. When I finally came in and complained, she tried to explain, not for the first time, how exquisitely boring it was to watch surfing. The lulls between sets seemed to go on for hours. There had been, it was true, some fairly long lulls.

My complaints were trivial, actually, not deeply felt. Caroline indulged my surf fever, even its most juvenile moments, beyond anything I had a right to expect, and I consciously tried never to lose sight of that fact. As indifferent as she was to the ocean and all things surf, our life together was braided with waves. They were a backdrop, a gravitational force, and rarely far away.

From ‘Barbarian Days’
by William Finnegan

Like William Finnegan and his wife Caroline, my life with my partner (and my dog) is braided with waves. I was a suburban child: we had a swimming pool in our backyard, which we swam in on hot summer days after school. The beach was a half-hour car trip away, and my parents reserved it for winter time: long walks in the wind and drizzle, wrapped in coats and scarves and gloves.

After I left home, and after I came home from my years-long travels overseas, I lived in a series of share households by the beach. I met my partner in my late twenties, when he was in his mid-thirties. We began to fall for each other very soon after we met, and only a few weeks after he had come into my life, he took me on a trip to the coast down south. It was Christmas, and his parents needed help towing and setting up their caravan for their annual holiday in the caravan park at Port Elliott. Later, after the caravan was set up and his parents were settled, we slipped away to the beach for some time alone.

And so our life together by the beach began.

Because of my partner’s lifelong passion for surfing, our holidays and camping trips have always been ocean-based. We have spent time in Yorke Peninsula (and indeed, I took the photos in today’s post on our latest trip to Yorkes, in mid-November), Eyre Peninsula, Western Australia, and various spots in our own coastal area, Fleurieu Peninsula; and when we are on holiday, in between the time we spend together on the beach and in the caravan (or, in the early days, the tent), my partner slips off to surf.

As Finnegan so succinctly puts it, the waves are a backdrop, a gravitational force to our lives; they are rarely far away.

I smiled with rueful recognition when I read Finnegan’s description of his wife Caroline’s indifference to all things surf. Oh, yes. But I suspect that, despite everything, Caroline is also grateful for the things that life with a surfer has brought her. As for me, the lifestyle I now lead, living by the coast, camping on cliffs that overlook the sea, wandering lonely shores, is one I am intensely grateful for.

If I had my time all over again, I would choose this life, over and over again.

I would choose it, as I do now, with astonishment and joy.

‘Good morning, beautiful,’ he said.

Other people’s words about … being called beautiful

All that week, this man [a friend of my mother’s, old enough to be my father] will pay for my taxi ride from school to the hotel. And I’ll ride in it, lipstick matching my nail polish, bra matching my underwear, feeling like a girl in a movie until I get there and then when I get there, see him waving at me by the entrance, ready to pay the driver, I will not feel like that anymore. You look nice, he’ll say in the elevator on the way up, if we are alone. Nice, not beautiful. Never will this man or any man call me beautiful, not for a long, long time.

from ’13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl’
Mona Awad

As much as possible, I try to keep my personal life out of this blog, at least in as far as the people I’m close to are concerned. So I will just say here that when I read the passage above, it brought tears to my eyes.

I live now with the first man who truly called me beautiful. We have been together for nearly twenty years, and he still makes me feel beautiful, inside and out.

(Because that’s the thing about beauty, anyway, right? It isn’t just about the way you look. That’s why You look nice will never cut it.)

Oh, and in case you hadn’t gathered already, we spend time together, the two of us, in beautiful spots, too, as the photos accompanying today’s post demonstrate …

What, then, is this?

Other people’s words about … therapy

Sometimes I wonder why I come here [to see my psychoanalyst] when the coming is so iterative, so forced. Having to come here sometimes feels like the biggest problem I have. I feel like a lonely man visiting a brothel, the money changing hands, paying for understanding as some people pay for love. And just as that is not love, so this cannot be understanding. What, then, is it?

from ‘Aftermath
by Rachel Cusk

As I’ve mentioned here before, I spent several years in and out of therapy, being treated for anorexia and its aftermath. I will be forever grateful to the therapists I saw during those years. They treated me with respect, patience, warmth and compassion. And they listened. Oh, they listened.

But I stayed in therapy too long, I think. I believed at the time that I was seeking a cure for my constant sense of malaise. That cure seemed terribly elusive. Now I think it was elusive because, subconsciously, I knew there wasn’t one. What I was really reaching out for was understanding, and that is not something I found in therapy sessions.

Therapy is a strange process. It is, as Rachel Cusk says in the passage above, a transaction of sorts. When that transaction starts to make you feel worse rather than better, when you feel lonelier leaving the therapist’s office than you did on arriving, it’s time to stop. It really is as simple as that, though it took me some time to figure this out.

Post-therapy, am I still seeking understanding? Yes, of course — just like everyone else. Have I found it? Not really. Perhaps no-one ever does. What I have found, though, is solace. I find solace in pots of tea, and walks along the beach, and wanders in the Scrub. I find it in cakes I bake, and books I’m reading, and camping trips I plan to go on. I find it in birdsong, and in leisurely bike rides, and in the company of my partner and my dog.

And I find solace in other people’s stories.

Tell me, then, where do you find solace?