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 …

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:

Snatched phrases: on translation

But a certain dullness of mind seems an almost necessary qualification, if not for every public man, at least for everyone seriously engaged in making money.

From ‘The Idiot’
by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Hmmm … read and weep. Dostoevsky’s observation about people is as relevant now as it was when he wrote it in the late nineteenth century. If only our public figures, our business people, our politicians would take heed!

But onto other things — no more weeping for now. One of the overarching reasons I’ve had for writing this blog in the last few years has been to give myself (and hopefully you, my readers) the chance to explore the joys of reading: to revel in other people’s words, to find meaning in their thoughts and the way they express them, to learn from them, to find communion and kinship with them. As I’ve remarked before, without books and reading, I would be a far lonelier person.

Recently, I’ve found a different kind of companionship in my reading. On Mother’s Day earlier this year, my mother and I started a reading ‘project’ together, our own little two-woman book club. At her suggestion, we have decided to read works of translation. We take it in turns to pick a title and read it, and then we exchange titles, and, having read them, meet up for coffee or for a walk to talk about them. The Idiot was one of her choices.

My mother is an inveterate reader. She reads widely, hungrily, curiously. Her joy in reading is contagious and almost palpable. I’m glad — and privileged — to have ‘caught’ that joy from her. And I’m extra glad to be exploring new books with her, to be having my world opened by her and by the writers she chooses.

Meanwhile, while we’re on the subject of translation, here’s the thing about reading, and the happiness you can find in it: it translates into life.

And that happiness is only amplified when it is shared.

The best-laid plans

Other people’s words about … waiting

Nick didn’t call me that morning, or that night. He didn’t call me the next day, or the day after that. Nobody did. Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen. I applied for jobs and turned up for seminars. Things went on.

From ‘Conversations with Friends
by Sally Rooney

I hadn’t planned to write this post. I thought that I would be — I planned to be — too busy to post anything between now and next week. I had family celebrations planned, after all, and a holiday trip away with a dear friend, and even a couple of shifts at work.

But I haven’t been well this Christmas, and so most of my plans for the holiday period so far haven’t eventuated.

Christmas is a tricky time, isn’t it? For some reason, I often get sick around this time of the year (and at other times of celebration). Like Sally Rooney’s narrator, Frances, in the passage above, I keep waiting for this to change, but the thing I am waiting for — not to get sick at Christmas, not to feel sad about getting sick at Christmas — continue[s] not to happen.

So why am I writing a post now, after all? Partly, I’m writing because I have unexpected time on my hands. Mostly, though, I’m writing because I wanted to reach out to other people who might also be feeling sad — whether unexpectedly or otherwise — this Christmas.

I don’t have any advice. I wish I did. The only thing I can find to do at times like this is to wait them out — which is ironic, given Rooney’s words above.

Still, whoever you are, wherever you are, if you are feeling sad right now, know this: you are not alone. Sadness is part and parcel of the deal.

And it passes.

Like the weather, like the tide, like footsteps in the sand, like all those hackneyed things — like Christmas, even — sadness, too, passes.

Day by day

Other people’s words about … tea

I am the sole tea-abstainer in my family. I think they regard this as a baffling perversion. To me, tea tastes like dried lawn-clippings, diluted leaf mould, watered-down compost mixed with a dash of bovine bodily fluid. I have never been able to stomach it.

From ‘I Am, I Am, I Am
by Maggie O’Farrell

I loved this quote from Maggie O’Farrell. My sister, an inveterate coffee-drinker, feels much the same as O’Farrell, I think: she wrinkles her nose in disgust at any suggestion of tea. She, in contrast to O’Farrell’s family members, is baffled by my love of the stuff.

Each to her own, right? I would find it harder to give up my one or two pots of tea per day than I would to give up chocolate or cake or wine. Tea provides me with what amounts to both a daily treat and a ritual, and it gives me, each day, a small moment (often temporary but still cherished) of sanity and solace.

I would write more, but it’s 9.30 in the morning and the kettle is on the stove waiting for me to make my daily pot of tea …

The poetry lover

Other people’s words about … poetry

It rained all day before we went for dinner at Melissa’s. I sat in bed in the morning writing poetry, hitting the return key whenever I wanted.

from ‘Conversations with Friends
by Sally Rooney

I had to smile when I read these words. In the last years of his career, my father, who was a professor of English literature, taught an undergraduate course on poetry. Ever a traditionalist, he taught his students to appreciate the form of the poems they read as well as the words themselves.

Though I’ve never studied English literature at university level, through some mysterious form of osmosis I absorbed some of what my father was teaching his students. Through this process, I now have a passing acquaintance with terms like blank verse and iambic pentameter, and with poetry forms such as sonnets and villanelles. And I’m with my father on this: discipline is a vital ingredient in poetry writing. Where there is no recognisable form or structure to a piece of writing, there is no poem: there are just words on a page, with a few strikes of the return key employed for good measure.

Funnily enough, when I happened to mention to my father that I was writing this post, he alerted me to this piece by David Campbell in The Australian, which my mother had first pointed out to him. In it, Campbell bewails the lack of rhyme, metre and set forms in current Australian poetry. Perhaps these things will become fashionable again one day. We can only hope.

Meanwhile, do you have a favourite poem? What is it? Here are the links to some of mine (including one by David Campbell), each of which transcends the strict form in which they are written in order to produce something more than its parts:

Tea, by Jehanne Dubrow (a sonnet, and the excuse for my tea-themed photo today)
Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, by Dylan Thomas (a villanelle)
On the Birth of a Son, by David Campbell (a sonnet)
The Watch, by Frances Darwin Conford (a strict rhyming system of which Campbell would most surely approve)

Of love and tomatoes

Other people’s words about … tomato sandwiches

I’d asked [my disabled friend] Jessie when a doctor had last looked at her. She couldn’t remember, so [while Jessie was staying with me] I went to my doctor, still Jock Ledingham’s wife, Una, at her practice, which was in their home in Ladbroke Square.

Una listened to me kindly, and then asked if anyone was nursing her. ‘Only me.’ There was an awkward pause, and then I added, hardly audible, ‘And I’m afraid I’m very bad at it.’ Lack of food and sleep made me start crying again.

‘I’m going to make you a tomato sandwich,’ she said. ‘All my family can manage a tomato sandwich whatever they are feeling like.’ She did, and I ate it, and felt much better.

from ‘Slipstream: A Memoir
by Elizabeth Jane Howard (p. 147)

When I was a child, my mother would sometimes make my sister and me tomato rolls for dinner instead of our usual cooked meal. This was a summertime-only ritual — she saved it for those evenings when the air was thick and heavy with heat. My sister and I would have spent the day dipping in and out of the swimming pool, so that our skin and hair reeked of chlorine. We’d come inside and stretch out on the carpet in the living-room at the front of our house, next to an electric fan. We’d read, or watch the cricket on television, or play Lego, or colour in, while the fan blew warm air over us and our hair dripped down our backs, forming great wet circles on our t-shirts. And then, at last, it was dinnertime.

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My mother made her tomato rolls with white bread — the kind that is crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside. She cut the rolls lengthwise in thirds rather than in halves, and then spread each layer thickly with butter. Over the butter she laid slices of tomato. Then, as a last touch, she seasoned the tomato with salt. (Never pepper. Children hate pepper.)

These were the days before Australians of Anglosaxon heritage knew about things like basil or coriander, ricotta or feta. We had never eaten avocado or garlic or extra virgin olive oil. We didn’t know of the existence of focaccia bread or ciabatta or sourdough. Most people ate margarine in preference to butter, thinking it was a healthier option. And we ate salt with everything — we lived in a hot climate, after all; we needed to replace the salt we’d sweated out during the day. So a tomato roll was just what it sounded like: a tomato roll. Nothing more, nothing less.

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It’s almost forty years since I ate one of my mother’s tomato rolls, and yet when I read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s words above about the curative powers of a tomato sandwich, I was instantly transported back to those simple summer meals my mother made us.

Bread. Butter. Tomatoes. Salt. I still think of this particular combination of food as the ultimate luxury, the greatest treat.

And as a symbol of my mother’s love.

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Note:
All the photos in this post depict our vegetable plot,  a plot at the back of our garden which my partner zealously tends, and which, despite his cheerful disregard for the weeds choking the vines, produces the most delicious tomatoes each year. Gardening, too, can be an act of love.