A question

Other people’s words about … therapy

My scores and answers [on the psychology questionnaires] indicated, among other things, [the therapist] had said, a lack of excitement about the future. Sleeping a great deal or sleeping very little. An ongoing melancholy.
My laughter burbled up again, helpless, irrepressible. It was the first time I had been this disrespectful to a grown-up.
If you ‘cured me’ of all of these, I told her, I don’t even know who I would be. It would be like getting lobotomised. I would not recognise myself.
Setting the clipboard down, I thanked her, still chuckling lightly. Walked out.
What the questionnaires had not asked that might have been useful to me:
Do you wake up each day for yourself or for someone else?
Do you believe your life to be your own?

from ‘All This Could Be Different
by Sarah Thankam Mathews

I’ve written before about how, many years ago now, I quit therapy. I’d been seeing a therapist for many years, but I’d come to the conclusion I couldn’t see him anymore. That therapist — I still remember him with great respect and affection, and I still remember my last session with him with great rage. I think my rage had been growing for some time, and I think, if I am honest with myself, that it was as much about what I felt my life might look like post-therapy than it was about the therapist himself, or about any failure I accused him of that day. Nonetheless, I did accuse him.

I told my therapist that day that I left each session with him feeling sadder than I did when I arrived. I told him that I was tired of the words ‘recovery’ and ‘cure’ when they were used in reference to my sadness. I told him, repeatedly, that this language we used in our sessions, which was the language of illness, made no sense in the context of my sadness. I told him that I didn’t want to speak this language anymore. And I left.

In my time I have filled out many questionnaires like the ones that the therapist in All This Could Be Different asks the narrator, Sneha, to fill out. And like Sneha, I’ve been given labels to use about myself as a result of the findings from those questionnaires. Ultimately, though, it’s the stuff I feel that isn’t diagnosable that is the hardest to sort through. To live with.

What would therapy be like if the first questions our therapists asked us — the questions our therapists repeated to us at every session — were Sneha’s two questions? What would life be like if those were the two questions we asked the people we love when we were worried about them? I don’t know. Sometimes I feel as though I’ve been trying to have that kind of therapy, that kind of conversation, all my life.

Tell me, do you wake up each day for yourself or for someone else? Do you believe your life to be your own? And what does it mean if your answer to both of those questions was ‘no’?

Lately I’ve been reading …

Replenish

Other people’s words about … being alone

As the train left the station, I felt a sense of relief. I wanted to walk in the woods and among the trees. I wanted not to speak to anyone, only to see and hear, to feel lonely.

from ‘Cold Enough for Snow
by Jessica Au

I’ve been thinking a lot this year about solitude and loneliness, about participating socially and withdrawing. Though popular scientists and the mainstream media continue to exhort us to maintain our social connections as we age, both for the health of our brain and for our psychological wellbeing, I have come to believe that it’s just as important to be comfortable in your own skin as it is to be comfortable in a social context.

Garden pickings (1), October 2022.

Some years ago a friend said to me that what she admired most in me was that I am a person who has a rich inner life. I have often thought about her words and what they might mean. I tend to think of myself as introverted and shy, a social choker, and I often find myself wanting because of this. But the truth is that when I let go of my expectations of myself as a social creature, I am happy wandering the avenues of my mind.

I think that’s why I find such accord with Jessica Au’s words in the passage I’ve quoted above. What if loneliness wasn’t just a negative version of solitude? Why not embrace it for itself? In fact, why not seek replenishment from it?

Truly: why not?

Garden pickings (2), October 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Roar

Other people’s words about … country and city life

Ramesh was used to the sounds of the suburbs. He never noticed barking dogs or level crossings. On the train to work every morning he turned up the volume of his audiobook so it was louder than other passengers’ mobile phone conversations. But [tonight he was in] the country [and it] roared. He could hear the air move in the trees. He had grown up in Croydon, moved to Glasgow at seventeen, back to London at twenty-three, then Sydney at thirty-six. As a child he’d stood outside his parents’ bedroom listening to his father’s whistling snore. He liked living in places where he could hear others alive. He reached for his phone where it sat charging. For an instant he saw his hands illuminated in the bluish light of its screen. He set his rain sound app to the setting called ‘Harbour Storm’.

‘What are you doing?’ Henry croaked. His face was pressed to the pillow. ‘You don’t need that tonight.’ 

Ramesh opened his mouth to argue, then he heard the rain outside, like gunfire on the corrugated iron roof.

from ‘Pulse Points
by Jennifer Down

I love this passage, not because I’m in accordance with Ramesh, but for the opposite reason. I love the ‘roar’ of the country. I spend most of my time living in a house in the suburbs. It’s close to the beach, which I love, but it’s even closer to the railway line, a line that trains zip up and down every half an hour from five in the morning until midnight.

Sunset, early August 2022.

I don’t mind the sound of trains, actually — as suburban sounds go, I find it vaguely comforting — but when I leave my house to stay outside the city, to visit Aldinga Scrub or to camp in Yorke Peninsula, I feel a knot inside my chest of which I wasn’t even aware releasing itself.

Sounds I love when I am away from the city: the dull roar of the ocean at the end of the road (yes, another roar). The whistle of a hot wind through the trees. A frogmouth letting out its low, persistent, booming call at dusk. A shrike thrush singing. A magpie warbling. Frogs croaking. Insects clicking in the grass. And, yes, like Ramesh, the rain drumming on the roof.

Still, the photo accompanying my post today, like so many of my photos on this blog these days, comes from the suburban beach at the end of the street I live on. The sand is being eroded away and there are car parks dotted along the coast line and on most weekends a food truck selling hot donuts sets up shop during daylight hours.

But it’s still the beach. It’s still wide and beautiful and open and … The sea still roars.

Lately I’ve been reading …

It’s a lengthy list today, because I’ve been reading far more than I’ve been posting. But I hope you find something interesting below.

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 …

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 …

 

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 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.