Treasure your beautiful world

Wild Geese (a poem by Mary Oliver)

You do not have to be good
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

It was the wonderful Gena Hemshaw who introduced me to Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Wild Geese’, and I have loved it ever since. Like Gena, I’ve found that the poem comforts me in times when the thoughts in my head are loud and tangled. And like Oliver herself, I’ve sought comfort in nature for many years. Looking up at the sky and down at the ground and out to the horizon reminds me of my place in the world. It heals me, if only temporarily.



Light on water.

 

But how true are Oliver’s words these days? How much longer can we find solace in nature if by nature what we mean is the way things are naturally, the way things have always been and the way they always will be?

It is impossible to ignore the discussion scientists and environmentalists are now having across the world about the climate crisis, the climate emergency. (That is, it’s impossible to ignore unless — and forgive me for saying this, but I will say it anyway — unless you are a white, male, middle-aged politician who thinks only about getting re-elected for another term of leadership.) It is impossible, too, to ignore the evidence of it as we go about our days. Wildfires, polar ice melt, rising land and sea temperatures, coral bleaching, floods, not to mention pandemics — here they all are, right in front of our faces.

These days when I read Mary Oliver’s words I feel despair rise thick in my throat.



Clouds above water.

 

I work very hard to inject a positive note in the posts on this blog. I don’t intend this to be a site for depression and maudlin pondering. But I cannot find a positive note to interject here when it comes to our changing natural environment.

I can only urge you, each and every one of you, myself included, to read Oliver’s poem often, to experience the feelings that arise in you as you read it, and to do what you can, in whatever way you can, to treasure this beautiful world while we still have it. Meanwhile the world goes on, Oliver says, but does it anymore?



Dying light.

 

Lately I’ve been reading …

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 …

Only connect: When we can

Other people’s words about connection

[My friend] Maeve took a strand of my hair and smoothed it into place as she talked. I was afraid of her leaving [to work in Vietnam]. Her breath was warm on my neck, her fingers easing through my hair. I depended on all of her small intrusions of affection. In Vietnam it would be hot, and I would be lonely in Sydney without her.

From ‘The Inland Sea’
by Madeleine Watts

I met a friend I hadn’t seen for several months for a walk on the beach recently, and we walked and talked and laughed and commiserated with each other, and I thought again how I miss her when I don’t see her for a while, and how sad that feeling of missing her is. But I also thought, knowing that I would miss her again when we’d walked away from each other that morning, that what I feel in missing her, mixed in with my sadness, are gratitude and joy for having met her, and for knowing her, and for seeing her when I do, and for talking to her when I can.

This, for me, is what Madeleine Watts means when her unnamed narrator says, of her friendship with Maeve, that she depend[s] on all of her small intrusions of affection. It is such a lovely phrase to describe that connection we feel with the people we love, such a perfect description of the way we bump into our friends and then ricochet away from them and then bump back into each other again.

This morning, as my friend and I walked, she touched my shoulder from time to time, and I in turn bumped her elbow a moment later. Sometimes she spoke too softly for me to hear her — because that’s something she often does, speak softly — and I was too embarrassed to keep asking her to repeat herself. And then sometimes I spoke for too long and was worried I was boring her.

And this, too, I think, is what Watts means when she speaks of those small intrusions of affection from our friends — without which, I sometimes think, it would be impossible to live.


A morning together.

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 …

Only connect: The secrets of the universe

Other people’s words about connection

I placed my hand on the back of his neck. I pulled him toward me. And kissed him. I kissed him. And I kissed him. And I kissed him. And I kissed him. And he kept kissing me back.
We laughed and we talked and looked up at the stars.
‘I wished it was raining,’ he said.
‘I don’t need the rain, ‘I said. ‘I need you.’
He traced his name on my back. I traced my name on his.
All this time.

From ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

I am a sucker for a love story that moves me. The older I get, the more what I mean when I talk about ‘a love story that moves me’ is ‘a love story that makes me weep’.

It’s taken me years to work out why this is. It is not because I am not loved. It is not because I do not love in return. It is because the love stories that make me weep are about a moment — or moments — of connection.


Big sky.

Oh, connection. I had planned in this post to theorise about why I — like so many other people, I suspect — feel so disconnected right now from other people and from the natural world around me. I’d planned to talk about the coronavirus pandemic. About the climate change crisis. About violence and discrimination against people who are not white or male or middle-class or heterosexual or young. And about what it feels like, as a non-married, non-childbearing, non-career-driven woman to turn fifty-one in this year, 2021.

But in the end I decided against writing about those things — partly because I’ve talked about them in previous posts over the years, and partly because most of these things are common topics of conversation right now, and I don’t think I have any new ideas to contribute.


Meeting place.

What I have decided to do instead is to start a new occasional series on this blog called — in the spirit of EM Forster, whose words in 1910 in Howard’s End seem more prescient than ever — Only connect!. In this series, I will be quoting passages that are in one way or another about those moments of connection that move me so deeply. Mostly, I suspect, that means the quotes in this series, like the passage I’ve quoted above from Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s beautiful novel for young adults about two Mexican-American boys who fall in love with each other in the 1980s, will be about love and intimacy. But there are other forms of connection that move me, too, and I will quote passages about them here, too.

Years ago, when I first wrote the blurb on my About the Words page of this blog, this is what I wrote: [This blog is] about my love for words, particularly other people’s words, and how they speak to me. Words can make us laugh, cry, think, hope, dream, rage —- but they have no meaning unless they are shared. I see now that what I was saying when I wrote that blurb was that words are a form of connection. And so I hope, in bringing this new series of posts to you that you, too, feel a moment of connection — with the words I’ve quoted, with the writer who wrote them, with me, too, perhaps.


A pot of tea and a book.

PS The photographs that dot this post come from a recent trip with my partner to our favourite camping spot in Yorke Peninsula, where we parked our caravan and spent the week reading, walking, eating, sleeping. We had no access to mobile phone coverage, or to emails, or to the internet. Strangely, it did not feel as though we were disconnected at all. Rather, it felt as though we were reconnecting — with each other, with the world around us, and with the natural rhythms of life. And that, perhaps, is the truest kind of connection of all.

Lately I’ve been reading …

How you receive the world

Other people’s words about … being vulnerable

But still she couldn’t sleep. The window was open and bare. The curtain had fallen down and no-one had bothered to put it back up because it always fell down again when you tried to pull it across. Ada was afraid that something bad was in the garden. The trees creaked. The night swam through the window and came into the room like a river.

From ‘The Last Summer of Ada Bloom’
by Martine Murray

Sometimes things are not as they seem. Sometimes the world outside seems dark and threatening, as Ada perceives it to be in Martine Murray’s gorgeous words quoted above — even when it is not.

In my last blog post, I wrote about some bad feedback that I thought I’d been given about a project I’ve been working on for a very long time. It turns out that that feedback wasn’t what it seemed at first to me, and that I’d been wrong in my interpretation of it. It turns out that there is hope for that project, after all.

Sometimes it depends on how you look at things, and on how you receive the world.

How you look at it: Darkness or light?

The project I was referring to was one I’d worked on for a long time, although over the years my commitment to it had wavered and waxed and waned. Sometimes I’d tried to run away from it, but every time I did, I would find myself returning to it, unable to abandon it until I knew that I had seen it through, no matter what the outcome would be. Towards the end I lost all sense of joy in my work on that project. It became a self-imposed duty, something I had to do regardless of the outcome, regardless of how I myself felt about it, regardless of how much time or energy or wellbeing it demanded of me. That’s why, when I thought that the feedback I’d received on it implied that I might have to do some more work in order to get it across the line, I wrote: And I do not (yet) know if I have the energy or the moral courage to do that work. I truly do not know.

In the days after I received that feedback, as I tried to work through my response, a kind friend asked me if I had ever listened to Brene Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability. I had heard of Brene Brown but I had never listened to her talk, nor I had I ever read any of her material. Without knowing anything about her, I had written her off as some kind of New Age guru or self-help profiteer. But I respect this friend a great deal, and in addition I was feeling so vulnerable that I figured listening to someone else talk about vulnerability might not be such a bad thing. So I sat down and listened to the talk, and within the first two minutes I found myself weeping.

Have you listened to it? If you haven’t, I can only recommend that you do. It is a humble speech, filled with common sense and humorous insight. It is a talk about how we long to connect with each other, and how important it is for us not to be afraid to connect, and what it takes to do so. For me, listening to Brown was a lightning moment. I wish a lot of things, but in relation to this project one of the things I most wish is that I had reached out earlier while I was working on it. I wish I had been unafraid to ask for feedback or advice right back in the early stages. I wish I had been willing to say to someone: This is what I’m working on, and it’s not working, and I don’t know why.

I didn’t, because I was seeking perfection. I didn’t, because I felt too vulnerable. But there is no such thing as perfection. And sometimes you have to be willing to feel vulnerable to move on.

This is Brene Brown’s TED talk, if you want to listen to it.

How you look at it: cute or wild?

In the aftermath of all of this, I feel exhausted and fragile. I still don’t know what will happen now that my project is out in the world (although I promise that I’ll tell you when I find out). At the same time, I feel as though I’ve learned something that I needed to know — not just about that project, but about myself. That’s another reason that it’s important to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It’s the only way we can learn.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Wild, wondrous

Other people’s words about … this huge earth

We don’t talk — the sea rises, crashes, pushes up the shore. It’s crawling up towards us [at the top of the dune], the tide turned high. The wind has gone feral. It rattles the sand under our feet. It flings the grass flat. Seagulls do loop-the-loops in the screaming sky. I watch the water, look out farther, farther, and if I look hard enough, maybe I’ll see past the cargo ships sitting like wobbly chess pieces on the grand back of the ocean, past the islands teetering at the edge of the earth, across to rumpled mountains and cities and past the future and past the sun, all the way round the earth and back to us on the pummelled sand, the gulls wailing, the two of us standing side by side and not touching.

From ‘How it Feels to Float’
by Helena Fox

The sea on a windy day is a wild, wondrous thing, as Helena Fox so beautifully describes in the passage I’ve quoted above. But I’m particularly taken by the last words in that passage: the two of us standing side by side and not touching. Is this a moment of intimacy that Fox is describing, do you think? Or is it a moment of terrible, lonely disconnect? I don’t know. My own personal answer to these questions changes depending on my mood.

Above.

I’ve had a strange couple of weeks since I last posted here, the details of which I don’t feel able to reveal right now. What I can say is this: a couple of weeks ago, I finished working on a project on which I’ve been working for a very, very long time, and I felt, as I finished working on it, a huge sense of completion. But my sense of completion was accompanied by a terrible sense of fear that, despite my hard work, despite my own sense of completion, the project might not be received well in the quarters that I needed it to be received well. That it might flop. Fail.

After I had completed the project, I waited for feedback, as I had been instructed to. I tried not to be filled with hope during that time: I am a pessimist, after all; I don’t believe in hope. But still, I did hope, despite myself. I think I was just hoping that my sense of completion wasn’t a terrible mistake. I wasn’t expecting success or adulation, but I was hoping, I suppose, that I was at least right in my belief that I had finished my work on this project.

And then I did receive the feedback on my project (unexpectedly quickly), and that feedback was exactly what I had feared all along. I was mistaken in thinking that I’d finished. There is still more work to be done. And I do not (yet) know if I have the energy or the moral courage to do that work. I truly do not know.

In between.

What does that have to do with Fox’s two of us standing side by side and not touching, you might ask? I don’t know, except that for me those words encapsulate that feeling of utter loneliness you can have, even when you have spent your life standing beside someone you love; even when you have known all your life that you are loved. I know that intimacy isn’t always about touching someone, or about someone touching you. But I also know that touching isn’t always a physical act.

Sometimes the sense that between the sky above and the earth below there is no-one in this world of ours you can reach out to and touch is very strong, is all I’m saying. It’s a feeling that is no less lonely or profound for all that it’s simply a consequence of being part of this wild, wondrous thing we call life.

Below.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Thankful

Other people’s words about … love

And the way I felt, seeing him for the first time in four years, was the way I felt every time I saw him in public all the years we were together. If I arrived somewhere and saw him already waiting for me, or walking in my direction, if he was talking to someone on the other side of a room — it wasn’t a thrill, a rush of affection, or pleasure. Then, in the church, I didn’t know what it was and spent all of the service trying to diagnose it. At the end of the service, Patrick smiled at me once more as I moved back … and I felt it again, so much from my core that it was difficult to keep going, to follow Ingrid and Hamish out, Patrick further and further behind me …

Thank God is how I felt when I saw Patrick that day. Not a thrill or affection or pleasure. Visceral relief.

From ‘Sorrow and Bliss’
by Meg Mason

I think Meg Mason’s words in the passage I’ve quoted above are possibly some of the best I’ve read as a description of what it feels like to love someone who is your lifelong partner, or husband, or companion. I’ve read many eloquent and moving (and arousing, even) descriptions of romantic love in fiction over the years, all of which I also love. But it takes a certain kind of grim, black humour to describe the other part of loving someone, that part which is more a kind of fatalistic recognition of how much a person can physically become a part of you, how much you know you need them and love them, and yet how little it seems to have to do with that word we so often overuse — ‘love’.

Sorrow and bliss, indeed.

Study in blue.

I’m writing today in the last week of January 2021, a month in which 100 million cases of coronavirus have been recorded in the last year or so, along with about 2 million deaths, since the first case was reported to the World Health Organization in Wuhan around the same time last year. In Australia, the virus has so far remained relatively under control — possibly due to sheer luck of timing and distance, I think, rather than to any kind of incredible management as far as leadership goes — and so we remain, for now at least, protected. Instead, Australians watch the tragedy unfolding from afar, and we mourn and hold our breaths at the same time, hoping the same thing won’t come to us.

Lizzie the garden cat, inching closer.

To me, this time, early 2021, feels like a time for a collective holding of the breath, across the globe. Who knows what 2021 holds? There is plenty of news bringing whiffs of hope — a vaccine, a new president in the US, a growing political will to respond to global warming and climate change. But it’s too early to know, yet, whether these whiffs of hope will be realised, or whether this time is just a lull in a gathering storm.

I hope, I hope, I hope.

And meanwhile, on a personal scale, I am grateful for the small but beautiful things in the world around me and in my life, a small sample of which I’ve captured in the photographs accompanying this post. It’s trite, perhaps, to fall back on the quotidian details, on appreciating and acknowledging the humdrum rhythms of everyday, but that doesn’t make the process any less meaningful or important. Meanwhile, there is another aspect to my life that I haven’t captured here, an aspect which will remain unpictured, but for which I, like Mason’s Martha, remain viscerally grateful. If you feel any accord for Mason’s words, you will know what I mean.

Your own Thank God.

Tree hug.

Lately I’ve been reading …