I cannot be the only woman who fantasises, sometimes, about spinning the wheel, driving her car off a cliff. It seems impossible to do, and therefore I long to do it. If only to make a hole in the preordained. If only to do something other than follow along, bumper to bumper, a dutiful mirror, for once in my life. If only to destroy something, even if it is myself.
I say this, but I can’t even take a leap into the goddamn ocean.
From ‘The Lightness’ by Emily Temple
I like the words by Emily Temple in the passage above, not because I often think about taking a suicidal plunge (I don’t), but because they are fearless. Because they acknowledge the violence inside us. Because they confess to a longing for the impossible, no matter how destructive the longing is.
I’ve spent the weeks (months, in fact) since I last wrote in here going about my life quietly, methodically, following each day, as Temple might have it, bumper to bumper.
Like everybody else in the world, I would call this a strange year, a troubling year. If I had to describe this year in a few, broad brushstrokes, I would say: there has been fire (in both hemispheres now); there has been a plague; there has been an insane king, bent on destroying his kingdom, while his subjects watch on, appalled.
There have been fires; there has been a plague.
In my own little world, on a more personal scale, I’ve turned fifty; I’ve mourned the loss of running in my life, due to an injury that I have yet to overcome; and I’ve farewelled my old dog. Life this year feels entirely strange and yet at the same time preordained, a statement I confess I can provide no explanation for.
Farewell, old friend
I want to finish by adding something wise, something pithy, here, but nothing comes to mind. Sometimes, you just have to keep moving, keep avoiding those cliffs, until you are ready to leap into the goddamn ocean.
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?
We walk back to our car, the morning seeming eerily quiet. I’m used to living close enough to the shore that occasionally we can hear the gulls in the distance, crying. Here, there’s nothing. With the cold, there’s no insect noise, no bird noise. Just the wind moving the leaves, the branches swaying, the world, faintly sighing.
From ‘Fragments of the Lost’ by Megan Miranda
Once, years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I left the house by the sea in which I was living to stay for a couple of weeks with a man with whom I thought I was in love. He lived interstate, in a suburb miles from the coast: a suburb of twisting cul-de-sacs lined with neat brick houses and small, grassy parks, each of which had a set of swings, and a see-saw, and a coin-operated barbecue.
With the passing of each day in that man’s house, I felt a terrible, growing sense of fatigue and disenchantment. At first, I thought that I must be ill. I felt tired, so tired: my limbs seemed stiff and leaden, and each night, as I lay in my bed in his guest room, sleep blanketed me so rapidly, so heavily, that I felt as though it was smothering me.
Then I thought that, rather than becoming ill, I was falling out of love. This was, in fact, partly the case: from the moment I first walked through his back door, I felt myself growing angrier and angrier with this man, whose life was nothing like I had thought it would be, and who (transported from the town where I had met him, my home town) seemed a different man, a different beast altogether, from the man I had been drawn to just a few weeks earlier.
But finally, as my days in his house passed, I came to realise that my strongest feeling of all, beyond the bewildering exhaustion, beyond the unjustifiable anger, was that I was lost. I mean the word in its literal sense: not as a metaphor for some kind of emotional loss (although that was undoubtedly a part of what I was feeling; I was, after all, very young), but as a geographical descriptor. I could not locate myself in the twisting, winding, circling streets of his suburb. I could not tell north from south, east from west. I felt as though I was in a maze. I knew that it was a maze of my own making, and I knew that I had to find a way out.
And it seemed to me that if only I could hear the sea the way I could hear it when I was at home (its sighs, its mutters, its roars), if only I could hear the gulls crying in the skies above me, the way Megan Miranda describes in the passage I’ve quoted above, I would know where I was, and I would no longer be lost.
Eventually, I found my way out of that maze, and I got myself safely back home. Still, I’ve never forgotten the weeks I spent in that man’s house. I came to understand, during that time, that the sea, for me, had become a kind of compass in my life, both literal and metaphorical. That the sea gives me a sense of place. A sense of direction. A sense of home.
Here, there’s nothing, Miranda’s narrator writes, describing her visit to a place far from the sea. Perhaps that’s what the sea gives most of all to those of us who live beside it: a sense of something outside of ourselves. A sense of presence.
[The waitress] leans over our table and turns the sign in the window so that it says CLOSED on the outside. But on our side, perfectly positioned between Mabel’s place and mine, it says OPEN. If this were a short story, it would mean something.
From ‘We Are Not Alone’ by Nina La Cour
I am the kind of person who, like Marin, the narrator in the passage above, can’t help seeing life through symbols and signs: I see metaphorical OPEN and CLOSED signs in my own life every day.
Lately, as some of you know, I’ve been released (at least for now) from the routine of salaried office work. I’m not answerable to an employer any more; I don’t have to be at the office at a particular time, or sign on and off at the beginning and end of my shift, or conform to a certain dress code, or take my lunch hour at a stipulated time for a stipulated duration. All of which implies a certain freedom, the kind of freedom I’ve often craved.
But I do have to hustle. If I want to get work as a freelancer, I have to go out and seek it, something I never had to do as a salaried employee. And in the daily transactions of that hustling — contacting people, letting them know of my existence and of the work I do, following up their responses, thinking of new people to contact and new ways to work — it’s all too easy to see signs everywhere I look. Someone doesn’t answer my email? That’s a CLOSED sign. Someone writes back, saying it’s lovely to hear from me? That’s an OPEN sign.
And so on.
It’s exhausting and exciting, both those things at once, and I don’t know yet where it will take me or what it will lead me to — or whether, ultimately, it will be sustainable. But for now, it’s early days, and I’m giving it a chance, and I still believe there might be some OPEN signs on the path ahead of me …
Signs and symbols: The way forward?
Lately I’ve been reading about …
Meanwhile, as always, I’ve been reading! Here’s the recent digest:
‘When you’re walking the view shifts and changes.
Walking’s a form of hope.’
from ‘The World Without Us‘ by Mireille Juchau
I often wax eloquent about the value of stopping and taking the time to look up, but the other day, walking in the Scrub, I happened to look down at the ground I was walking on, and this is what I saw:
My friend Anne tells me that these words are quotes from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a movie I’ve never seen because it’s never appealed to me.
I do like these words, though.
I went back to the Scrub the next day, retracing my steps, but the pebbles had gone, or someone had moved them, or (at least, this is what I thought, till I remembered I had photographed them) they had never been there in the first place, except in my imagination.
But I kind of like the fact that they disappeared. Though I’d hate to be accused of solipsism, or indeed of fatalism, somehow it feels as though I was meant to see those words that day.
And as though, perhaps, I was meant to pass them on to you.
After Bunty died, days slid into one another like the colours in a sunset. Whole afternoons passed as Christabel drank tea in the kitchen … If there was a book in front of her, she would look away frequently and forget to turn its pages — she no longer read in the old, urgent way. The taste for reading had started to withdraw from her; she felt it pulling gently away, like a tide. Books contained hard truths, waiting like splinters in their pages. Over the years, many had lodged in her unnoticed. Little anticipations of life’s awfulness, they might have served as a defence against it but pierced instead with knowledge of damage, error, waste.
From ‘The Life to Come’
by Michelle de Kretser
CS Lewis once wrote that we read fiction and literature to seek an enlargement of our being; we read because [w]e want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. I don’t subscribe to Lewis’s Christian practices and beliefs, but I do — oh, I do — subscribe to his views on reading.
And so Michelle de Kretser’s words in the passage above affected me deeply. I cannot imagine a life in which [t]he taste for reading had started to withdraw from me; the thought that the truths I treasure finding within a book’s pages might begin to feel like splinters horrifies me.
Reading for me is an activity that provides solace. The solace comes most strongly from finding kinship within the pages of the books I read: kinship with the book’s characters, and, vicariously, with the book’s writer, who created the characters. That’s not quite what Lewis is saying, but it’s part of it, I think: it’s hidden in his words. When de Kretser’s character Christabel finds herself losing the taste for reading, losing the urgency that was inherent for her in the act, what she is really experiencing is loss. Loneliness. Desolation.
If I was a praying person, as Lewis certainly was, I would offer up a prayer here, in response to de Kretser’s words. I would pray: Please don’t let me ever experience this particular form of loss.
I would pray: Please don’t let me lose the companionship of books.
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.
The sun was like a moon in this country, and in its light I felt as if I was looking at everything through a pearl. It was cold and the trees had no leaves. I had never seen a leafless tree before.
from ‘Sleeping on Jupiter‘ by Anuradha Roy
I love this description by Anuradha Roy of a Northern Hemisphere winter, as seen through the eyes of a young Indian woman accustomed to living in the tropics. I remember feeling the same way myself when I left Australia in my twenties to travel through Britain, Europe and North America (and, later, elsewhere). For a year I lived and worked in Germany, as I’ve mentioned once before, in a small industrial town in Nordrhein-Westfalen, not far from Dortmund and Dusseldorf. To begin with, from November through to April, before my German was fluent enough for me to find another job, I worked in a factory.
During those winter months in Germany, I rose each day just before six o’clock and walked through the dark streets of town to the station, where I caught a train and then a bus to the factory district. My shift started at around seven-thirty, but daylight didn’t filter through the glass panels of the workshop ceiling until well after nine-thirty. I left work at four o’clock — first back on the bus and then onto the train; then back on foot through the streets towards the fourth-floor apartment I shared with a German friend. By the time I reached the door that led from the street of our apartment building into the stairwell, the sky had darkened again.
I thought, as I shuttled from home to railway station to bus to factory and then back in reverse, that I might never see broad daylight again.
The trees that lined the street on which I lived during those months were European trees, native to the area, and so they were deciduous. Their leafless, bare branches formed stark silhouettes against the grey apartment buildings and the grey, clouded sky. It didn’t snow, but even in the few hours of daylight we were granted, the sun stayed hidden, a faded white ball in that streak of grey sky. Everything seemed cold and grey. I, too, felt cold and grey.
Though Australia does have a few native deciduous trees, most native vegetation is evergreen. And so, even though the winters here in South Australia can at times feel very grey, most leafless trees — like the ones I photographed to accompany today’s post, all of which grow in the neighbourhood where I live — are imports from countries like Germany: cousins of those trees that lined the streets of the town where I worked all those years ago.
I’m a home-body these days. I love the Australian sun. I love the wide arch of sky and the shifting, glittering, restless ocean. I love the grey-green leaves of eucalypts, the drooping pods of acacia trees, the red bristles of bottlebrush flowers, the golden needles of the sheoaks. I couldn’t live anywhere else now. This is home to me.
Travelling brought me a lot of joy, though, and it taught me things I could never have learned if I’d stayed at home. My love for this place is a part of what my travels taught me, I think. Those bare-branched trees were a gift. They led me back home.
Andrew Wylie and Sarah Chalfant continued to treat me as a writer until eventually I became one again.
from the ‘Acknowledgments’ section in ‘Aftermath‘ by Rachel Cusk
There is a ritual I always follow when I first pick up a new book to read. Before I begin to read it, I flick to the end to see how many pages it is. I like to know the length of the book I’m about to read, so that as I’m reading it, I know exactly how far I am through. It’s a way of measuring the pace of the story, perhaps: a way, too, of pacing myself and measuring my mood as I read. Sometimes, also, I admit, it’s a way of determining whether I’ll keep reading the book to its end. (If I’m bored and I’m not even a third of the way through, I stop. Life is so short and the library has so many books, it’s not worth spending time struggling through one I’m not enjoying!)
Once I’ve done that, I like to read the ‘About the Author’ section. I look at the author photo and check out their biography. Are they an academic? Is this their first book? How old are they? What do they like to reveal about themselves? Do they stick solely to their writing history, or do they mention their family, their loved ones, their hobbies? Do they write full-time, or do they have another job that pays for the privilege of writing? Maybe reading about the author is a way of trying to find some kind of connection. Reading is better, in my experience, when you feel connected in some ways — to the characters, certainly, but also, at least for me, to the author.
Next, I look at the list of the author’s previous publications, near the front of the book. I look at the copyright page, to see the date of publication. And then, finally, I read the acknowledgments. I love to see who the author thanks in their acknowledgments, and in what order, and whether their acknowledgments are formal or perfunctory (or both), or informal and long-winded and meandering. Sometimes there is a hint of how the author felt as they wrote the book — whether the writing of it was a joyful process or whether they were filled with troubles and doubt as they wrote.
There is an art to writing good acknowledgments, I think. If the author says too much — gushing about how wonderful the writing process was, or moaning about how difficult it became — they embarrass themselves. If the author says too little, the words are meaningless. Sometimes — unfairly, no doubt — I am so swayed by my reaction to the acknowledgments that I have already decided whether I love or hate the book before I’ve even read the book itself.
Rachel Cusk’s acknowledgments for Aftermath are of average length; the writing of them is neither perfunctory nor over the top. There is no hint of whining in them, and yet the sentence I’ve quoted above hints — subtly, I think, and poignantly — at serious writerly doubt. Once I’d read that sentence, I was determined to read the book all the way through, no matter how difficult I found it. Cusk, in those few words, had won me over.
They continued to treat me as a writer until eventually I became one again.That might be one of the most grateful sentences I’ve ever read from a writer. Gratitude, graciousness, humility — these are qualities I admire in others and aspire to myself. A writer who can write a sentence like that is, simply, the kind of writer whose books I want to read.
Note: Some readers may remember that I published an earlier version of this post by mistake, before I had finished writing it — a version I subsequently (and very hastily) deleted when I realised my mistake! This is the finished version, finally …
Recently, I spent a weekend in Perth, Western Australia, celebrating a friend’s fiftieth birthday.
Read that sentence again. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? I hopped onto a plane in Adelaide on Friday afternoon, and arrived in Perth two hours later; I rented a small, sunlit apartment in West Perth for two nights; and then late on Sunday afternoon, I hopped onto another plane and flew back to Adelaide. This is the kind of thing people do all the time, if they can afford to. It’s what people call a ‘holiday’, a ‘break’.
And this trip was both of those things, and for me, that seems a little like a miracle.
In my twenties, I spent over two years travelling and living overseas: waitressing in London, volunteering on an archaeology dig in Texas, working in a factory and then an ice cream shop in Germany, and, in my last year, teaching English in Cairo and Jakarta. I was a well-seasoned traveller by any standards. By that age, I had had emetophobia — a fear of nausea and vomiting, which I have mentioned in passing on this blog before (here, for example) — for over fifteen years. It caused the odd anxiety attack (the kind I’ve referred to here and here), but nothing else. It certainly didn’t stop me from my travels.
But then, in my late thirties, something happened. Something — some edifice of bravery or stability or spontaneity inside of me — crumbled. For some reason, I began to feel queasy and nauseated more often, and so, because of the emetophobia, I began to feel anxious more often. The sickness and the anxiety always accompanied each other: sometimes it was hard to tell which came first. (This is the emetophobe’s eternal dilemma: Do I feel anxious because I am nauseous? Or do I feel I nauseous because I am anxious?)
My illness and anxiety seemed to be magnified when I travelled. They became even worse if I was travelling in the company of people I loved, people I really wanted to travel with. Despite the occasional bout of nausea and stomach upset during camping trips, I continued going camping (truly, thank goodness for my beloved Yorke Peninsula!), but, in the end, I stopped all other forms of holiday travel. I booked rash, non-refundable trips to visit my dearest friends who live interstate — Perth, New South Wales — and then cancelled my bookings, losing all the money I’d spent in the process. I planned holidays in Portugal and New York, with family, with friends, with my partner, and then I cancelled those trips, too. I wanted to go on those trips, but I felt that I couldn’t.
In the end, I stopped going on holidays anywhere beyond the state borders of South Australia.
I just stopped.
Fear of holidays is a very strange fear to have. Adelaide author Elisa Black is one of the few people who understand it:
The anxiety during this trip was so intense that it is almost too much to remember, no matter how hard I try. I know I thought I was going crazy. I know I was exhausted …
Constant dread, that is what I felt … What I wanted was to not feel this way, to be normal, but if that wasn’t possible then I wanted to crawl into a hole where I could be safe, where everything could be controlled …
from ‘The Anxiety Book‘ by Elisa Black
Those phrases: constant dread, and I wanted to crawl into a hole where I could be safe. They say it all. For me, they speak to a form of social anxiety. For many years, I have been ashamed of my phobia. What is there to fear about vomiting? And so, when I get nauseous, and the nausea triggers my anxiety, I am also flooded with feelings of shame. I try to act ‘normally’ during the course of an attack of nausea, but my terror and my shame impair my performance. (Note that word, with all its implications: ‘performance’.)
What I long for when I am nauseous is to be alone. I long for some kind of sanctuary.
Fear of holidays and travel is one thing. But then, too, there’s the fear of flying.
Winter in Adelaide this year has been very stormy. We have had one of the rainiest winters ever recorded; we have had statewide power cuts; we have had floods. It is spring now, and yet winter still hovers and menaces. The night before I left for Perth, there was another storm, and when I went to walk my dog the following morning, I saw that branches from the pine trees that line the esplanade by the beach had come down, barring our path over the dunes.
It did not seem a very auspicious day for flying. All that wind! All that turbulence! I wondered — I truly wondered — if I could get on the plane and fly to Perth as I’d promised.
Oddly, I am not actually afraid of the act of flying itself: unlike many anxious fliers, I don’t fear plane crashes or hijacking. I once knew a woman who feared flying because she had a fear of sharks, but I don’t share this particular terror. My fear is, I think, more like a form of claustrophobia: it is a fear of becoming nauseated and thus anxious whilst I am trapped inside a machine, way up in the air, with no escape. I am not very good at staying still when I am anxious about being sick. I do not lie down, as most people do when they feel unwell: I go outside; I pace; I tremble; I sob melodramatically; I run away. I do not like to be witnessed or contained. An aeroplane is, unfortunately, the perfect vessel of witness and containment.
Scott Stossel shares my fear:
For instance, the fear of vomiting … makes me afraid of travel because I’m afraid I’ll vomit far from home. It makes me afraid of flying not for the conventional reason that I’m afraid that the plane will crash, although I also have that, but I’m afraid I’ll get motion sick and get nauseous … The horrible kind of self-fulfilling vicious cycle of emetophobia is that if you’re prone to acute anxiety and nervousness, as I am, it often manifests itself with stomach symptoms.
At first glance, today’s post might seem to be all about fear. Yet here I am, back from a wonderful weekend in Perth, despite all my fears.
So what I am writing about today is, in fact, celebration. Forgive me if it seems solipsistic, but this is about me breaking a pattern. It’s about me, stepping onto a plane; me, flying; me, not getting ill while I was on holiday as I’d feared (though I did get anxious). It’s about me being able to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. It is about some part of me being restored after all these years: rebuilt. Not recovered, exactly: I am still emetophobic; I still have a funny tummy; I am still anxious; I still find recovery, from both illness and anxiety, a problematic concept.
Most of all, what I am writing about today is hope.
By the way, if you should ever choose to holiday in Perth, you must visit Kings Park, where most of the photos on today’s post were taken. It is a beautiful place: a kind of sanctuary, if you like. Take a picnic there with you, or a book; go for a wander with friends.
Enjoy your time there. Celebrate it. Allow yourself to feel restored.
And, wherever you are today, whatever you are doing right now, breathe. Smile. Wonder.