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 …

 

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 …

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 confess I do enjoy posting my photographs on Instagram. (If you want to join me on Instagram, by the way, you can find me here.)



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 another 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.

Stumble

Other people’s words about … being an adult

I’ve joked all my life about my complete incapacity with money. Nothing has made me more anxious than dealing with finances. Trying to do my accounts caused a fog in my brain, a feeling near panic. I sensed, with the same primitive instincts that locate danger, that money is something that invalidates me, that cancels me out. I was afraid of it, afraid of its mysterious mechanisms. I loathed it, and yet it ruled my life …

Before I was in my fifties, I had no idea, until an accountant added it up, how much I earned in a year. I couldn’t read my financial records and I didn’t possess the smallest notion of what to do if I did. To me, all these things were as punitive and arbitrary as the love of God, which passeth all understanding.

From ‘Monsters: A Reckoning

by Alison Croggon

For the last few years I have lived with a similar sense of incapacity at the edges of my awareness to the one that Alison Croggon describes in the passage above. My incapacity is partly, like Croggon’s, about financial matters: though I finally learned to manage to file my tax return in my early thirties, for example, I have yet to come to terms with superannuation and all its requirements. (I make flippant jokes to friends about how I plan to live in a tent after retirement. And then I say: ‘Besides, what’s retirement, anyway? I’ll have to keep working to pay my bills till the day I die.’)

But that fog in my brain that Croggon describes descends on me in other areas, too. I have been aware since my late twenties that I had lost, or couldn’t locate, several crucial documents of identity — my birth certificate, my Australian citizenship certificate. I stumbled along without these documents, managing to get by using my passport instead, until, around the time I began to avoid getting in planes, I let my passport lapse, too, until it no longer qualified as a document that could establish my identity.

And still, even then, I put off applying for a replacement birth certificate or citizenship certificate. I was terrified that I would find once I started the application process that I wouldn’t qualify for those documents anymore. I was terrified I would no longer be able to prove that I am who I am. (Whoever that is.) I was terrified, in other words, that the application process would, as Croggon puts it, cancel me out.



Fog at Deep Creek.

I have lived my life like this for years. Decades, even. But in the space of the last three weeks — and I apologise for the clumsiness of the segue here, but it is all I can muster — in addition to re-establishing my identity and regaining my papers, I have bought a house and I have sold a house. Somewhere in those last three weeks I have also walked through a doorway out into the sunshine — a real, physical doorway, I mean, not a metaphorical one — and rolled my ankle, possibly tearing a ligament (still trying to figure that out). As a result of this I find myself now, quite literally, limping and stumbling through my days.



After the fog cleared.

I apologised earlier for the clumsiness of my segue, but the clumsiness I was referring to, though not intentional, was hardly coincidental. Though it shames me to say this, I find it impossible to talk with any grace or even with any sense of safe passage about the things I have been doing recently: proving my identity, applying for home loans, buying and selling and moving house. They are things that most people have to do at some point in their lives in our society, I know, but going through them makes me feel sick enough, my stomach churning, my head spinning. Talking about it, writing about it, processing it is too much. That fog in the brain again.

It takes a certain level of privilege to be in the position I am in, to have got through my life the way I have till now: no questions to answer, no endless need to prove who I am. The colour of my skin, the family I am part of, the certainty that I am lucky enough to feel about my gender and sexuality, the generation I was born into — all of these things have allowed me, and will continue to allow me, to choose to make myself powerless in the ways I have chosen to till now.



Deep Creek reflections.

And yet. That doesn’t mean the terror isn’t real. It doesn’t mean the choices I’ve made haven’t felt instinctive, primitive, inevitable; it doesn’t mean they haven’t felt like choices at all. It doesn’t mean I won’t keep limping through the days, wondering when I will be able to walk — or maybe, one day, even run? — again.

Lately I’ve been reading …

  • Through the Window: Rather than a number of articles, today I’m sending you this link instead, the Griffith Review‘s wonderful series of essays about the experience of living through the coronavirus pandemic. If you are interested in any kind of coronavirus chronicles, I can highly recommend any of the essays on this list.

Chasing clouds

Other people’s words about … getting lost

I said earlier that I have no special running talents. In fact, I have one: getting lost.

No-one gets lost like I do. It’s not just a running thing. It’s a getting lost thing.

I’ve been lost when running, walking, driving, cycling, sailing, using public transport, even (once) taking a taxi, on at least three continents, since I first ventured out into the world as an unaccompanied teenager. I’ve temporarily abandoned a car in Milton Keynes, and once phoned [my wife] Clare from the outskirts of Northampton to warn her that I might not find my way home for days. I’ve never been lost on a running track (yet), but I have been lost indoors — not just temporarily disoriented, but properly, sit-down-and-cry-and-wait-to-die lost — on a disastrous visit to the Birmingham branch of Ikea.

From ‘Running Free’
by Richard Askwith

I am someone who gets lost as easily as Richard Askwith. I live in Australia, not England, so I’ve never got lost in Milton Keynes or Northampton, but I have certainly been to the Adelaide branch of Ikea and experienced that sense of utter lostness that he so delightfully describes as sit-down-and-cry-and-wait-to-die lost. (Though, actually, I would call that particular kind of ‘lost’ an Ikea thing rather than a getting lost thing. Just saying … )


Dune’s counterpane:
How can you ever feel lost when these are the things you see along your way?

I don’t just get lost physically, either. I frequently feel lost in a metaphorical sense, too. I admire anyone who seems to know (or who feels as though they know) where they are going in life. I don’t. I never have. The older I get, the more strongly I become aware of my inner sense of lostness.

Often, this innate sense of lostness feels like a burden. But not always. Because the thing about setting off towards one place and ending up somewhere else entirely, somewhere you hadn’t planned on and don’t recognise at all, is that you get the chance to explore.


Lizzie the garden cat:
A lost cat, but also a found one.

I’m talking metaphorically here again, of course. But the older I get, the more strongly I also come to understand the importance of being willing to explore, willing to wander, willing to wonder. And sometimes, in hopeful moments, I see many years of exploring and wandering and wondering ahead of me.

I like that thought.

Lately I’ve been reading …

That dark ocean

Other people’s words about … rescue

A look of doubt came across my mother’s face. It was all there in her expression. The knowledge that a person can become lost in their life, how you might swim in the waters and reach for the lifebuoys but never be rescued, might drown out there in the dark ocean of your choices.

From ‘The Inland Sea’
by Madeleine Watts

When I was a young woman receiving treatment for my eating disorder, I used to agonise over every decision I made, whether the decision was a tiny one (like what percentage of fat the yoghurt I ate should contain) or whether the decision was a life-affecting one (like what career path I should follow, or whether I should follow a career path at all). For a year or so I saw a community mental health nurse who would say to me over and over, whenever I ruminated over my decision-making processes, ‘Rebecca, there are no wrong or right decisions, no good or bad choices. There are just better ones.’

At the time, I found this woman’s words comforting. Certainly, her counsel helped me to dither less — and dithering less, for someone who had spent all her life dithering and equivocating and stalling, could only be a good thing.


Path to the horizon.

But now that I am an older woman, I wince slightly when I remember the words of that community nurse. First, like the mother of Madeleine Watts’s narrator in the passage I’ve quoted above, I am only too aware that the decisions we make in our lives can lead us down paths with destinations that are not at all what we thought they would be when we set out on them. And sometimes those paths we follow are paths with no return — paths we can only keep on walking down, no matter how lost we may feel while we walk down them.


Path through the clouds. (Look closely!)


Second, I’m even more aware that the concept of choice itself may be illusory. For a variety of reasons, those of us living in Western societies are sold the idea that we can choose how to lead our lives, choose the outcomes that lie ahead of us.* But the older I become — the older I am lucky enough to become, I should say — the more I find myself acknowledging that there are many things over which we have no control at all. You can make as many decisions and choices as deliberately or spontaneously as you like, but life often happens anyway — in its own way.

I’m conscious of talking in clichés here. Still, it’s clear to me, at the ripe old age of fifty-one, that in the end the most important decisions we make in our lives are not about what we will do but about how we will choose to respond to the cards that life has dealt us.

* I use the word ‘sold’ deliberately.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Chasing clouds

Other people’s words about … running

Once he warmed up, once the tension was gone, once the sweat had properly broken and his breathing was rhythmically heavy and every twinge of stiffness and pain from previous workouts had been obliterated by adrenaline and endorphins, when all of that had happened, there was almost nowhere on earth he’d rather be, even on up-and-down back roads with no shoulder or, as now, on the old railroad path too crowded with entitled cyclists or groups of power-walking mums in their pastel tops and self-crimped hair.

For forty-five minutes, or an hour, or an hour and a half, the world was his, and he was alone in it. Blissfully, wonderfully, almost sacredly alone.

From ‘Release’
by Patrick Ness

One of the things I think I most love about running is that the act itself is so full of mysterious contradictions. For example, it’s hard work, and yet I look forward to it as a luxurious treat, in much the same way I look forward to eating an oversized piece of decadent chocolate cake. Similarly, when I’m running I feel as though I’m moving purposefully forward, following a path to something new. And yet it’s obvious that, unless your plan when you set out is to run away and never return, any run is circular, ending right back where it began.

Even the sense that I am on my own when I run — blissfully, wonderfully, almost sacredly alone, as Patrick Ness puts it in the excerpt above — is unreliable. I am never alone when I run. I run on roads, on shared paths, on trails, on beaches. There are always others inhabiting the space with me, running or walking or cycling or just sitting on a bench enjoying the view (like the views you see in the photographs I took for this post). Running, even for a lone runner like me, is an entirely communal activity.

Another contradiction: sometimes, when I feel unwell — headachey, perhaps, or queasy or tired or sleep-deprived — I know that from the moment I step outside those symptoms will leave me for the duration of my run. Probably, I’ll feel unwell again afterwards; running isn’t ever, in my experience, a cure. But for those fifteen or thirty or forty-five minutes when my feet are drumming the ground in the old, familiar rhythm, I know I’ll be symptom-free.

I have no explanation for this. It’s just part and parcel of this beloved thing I know as running.

Maybe that’s why running appeals to so many different kinds of people — because the concept itself, what it involves, what it means, is so flexible, so all-encompassing. Some of us run to lose weight; some of us run to get fit; some of us run to break records; some of us run to find joy. Whatever the reason, those of us who are physically lucky enough to be able to consider running for the long term, in whatever fashion we can manage, have one thing in common.

We know it makes us feel like a better version of ourselves.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Perspective

Other people’s words about … the way we look at things

In the sky [above the garden] a plane glints, tiny as a metal cracker toy, and draws a roar reduced to a whisper after it, as it follows the flight path over Bexford Hill towards distant Heathrow. There’s always a plane up there if you look, near or far, visible or only betrayed by a line of vapour, but always moving westwards … It’s as if the aeroplanes were part of the mechanism of the garden; a necessary part. As if this tidy patch of lawn surrounded by its fence, with its brilliant blossoms too many to count and its coiled yellow hose, together formed the bottom half of a machine of bliss, which required for its complete working the dome of sky above, and for the furthest component of its clockwork the timekeeping planes on their celestial track. Patiently they tick from east to west. Or perhaps they are joined to the sky, and it is the sky that is moving, a blue sphere studded with occasional silver that cranks around, and around, and around.

From ‘Light Perpetual’
by Francis Spufford

I love the way Francis Spufford, in the passage above, turns on its head the way we usually look at a place that is deeply familiar to us to create a whole new way of looking at it.

Sometimes maybe that’s all we need, right? A new perspective.

One day this week: A blue world.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been busy editing and working and making, meanwhile, small decisions about the way I plan to work from now on. I say they were small decisions and they were, really, but in some ways — the best ways — they have transformed the way I feel about how I live my daily life.

Over the years I’ve read a great deal about the benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy, which in essence is a therapy that aims to help a person change the way they think so that they can overcome their own particular mental obstacles.


Another day the same week: A grey world.

But I’ve never found much resonance in cognitive therapy. For me, it’s less about changing the way I think about things than it is about changing the way I see things.

Semantics, you think? Maybe. But it works for me.

Lately I’ve been reading …