Speak

Other people’s words about … despair

She sat across from him. For some reason, he removed his glasses and set them on the gold table. His naked eyes were as dark as the burnished leather they sat on and held a startling amount of despair. The effect struck her as indecent, as if he’d disrobed. ‘Put your glasses back on,’ she wanted to tell him. ‘For God’s sake.’

from ‘Vacuum in the Dark
by Jen Beagin

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the things people say to each other and the things they don’t. And about subtext, which is not quite the same thing but is part of it all the same.

Over the last couple of years, having written and submitted a middle-grade fiction manuscript to my agent which has as yet to find a home with a publisher, I’ve been writing a literary fiction manuscript. I haven’t mentioned this here till now, in part because my writing in that area is still so new and tentative, and in part because when I say the words, ‘I am writing a literary fiction manuscript’, all I hear is my own internal mocking laughter.

You? says the voice in head, that little internalised voice. How could you possibly presume to have something to say in the literary fiction field? How could you assume that much writing talent of yourself? That much wisdom?

Bracken fern, light and shadow, January 2023.

It’s impossible to say whether what I’m writing will ever be something complete, let alone publishable. That’s the risk any writer takes, whether they have had previous books published, as I have, or not. But what I am writing about in that manuscript is in part what Jen Beagin describes so beautifully in the passage I’ve quoted above: our unwillingness to witness each other’s despair. Our inability to talk about it or bring it to light. Our constant need to reassure each other with upbeat, optimistic conversation and good cheer.

I am not by nature a cheerful person. Nor am I an optimist. Nor am I a skilled conversationalist. At fifty-two, I still find myself getting midway through a conversation with another person, only to realise that I have revealed too much of myself: my fears, my doubts, my sadnesses. (Actually, ‘I still find myself’ is the wrong way to put this; in fact, the right way to put this would be, ‘I increasingly find myself’.) Maybe this isn’t evident to the person I’m talking to, or maybe it is. I’m never sure. But I often feel like the man Beagin describes in the passage above: glasses off, the truth in my eyes revealed. This is not a comfortable place to find myself.

But increasingly I believe in the importance of confronting the secrets we see in other people’s eyes. I believe in meeting those secrets head-on. I believe in talking about them. Perhaps what I am saying here is that secrets don’t have to be the subtext to the conversations we have with other people: they can be the essence of our conversations. They can be where we meet.

Common everlasting flowers, January 2023.

Lately I’ve been reading …

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.

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 …

 

Only connect: Reunion

Other people’s words about connection

Maude cranes around to look and Cormac looks too, close enough to see them, all quite young and glacially made up with one man of height and handsomeness towering over the rest and another, a man to the tall one’s left, cocking his head and nodding in Cormac’s direction meaningfully.
It is Senan. Cormac waves …
He hasn’t seen Senan in person for months and yet his vision still telescopes in, urgent and unreconstructed, so that Cormac sees and knows again he loves him with a scratchy passion that returns as reliably as a rash. It is not a nostalgic feeling and casts no shadow, existing always in a self-sustaining now.
How acute it is: immediate deja vu.

From ‘We Were Young

by Niamh Campbell

I love this passage from Niahm Campbell about a man reuniting with someone he loves after the two of them have spent some time apart. Cormack, the character in Campbell’s novel, seems unable to commit to one person, whether man or woman; he moves from one relationship or liaison to another. But as a backdrop to all his attempts to remain unfettered there is his love for Senan, a man who is smart enough, perhaps, to keep himself unavailable and therefore always desirable and lovable.



Sunlight and trees, April 2022.


Who hasn’t at some time in their life loved someone who was unavailable? Or, moving beyond relationships and intimacy, who hasn’t wanted something that was eternally just out of reach?


Grasstree, 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 …

Absolution

Other people’s words about … being loved

We were sitting on a cushioned bench [in the pub]. Eddie had one thick thigh crossed over the other, and he was wagging his right foot gently. He was wearing beautiful Italian brogues and talking to the man next to him, laughing at something a little too loudly, and then suddenly he turned to me, rested his hand on my leg and asked softly was I okay.
‘You okay there, pet? Can I get you something?’
It was there in the tone. I knew that I was loved as I had never been before. I don’t mean that Eddie loved me with remarkable passion or insight. I don’t mean that I felt most fully myself with him. I mean that, in the strangest way, I felt forgiven. For as long as I could remember there’d been a vague disquiet in me, as if I lived in the shadow of some humiliation whose particulars I could not recall. Until Eddie, until he absolved me, I hadn’t known there was any other way to feel.

From ‘When Light is Like Water

by Molly McCloskey

In the last few years I’ve noticed that when I’m reading a book or watching a movie the two kinds of scenes that most move me are those where two people connect for the first time (mostly, though not always, through falling in love) and those where someone forgives someone else.

Both kinds of scenes make me cry. I’m still not sure whether my tears come from a place of catharsis or from a place of yearning.


Port Adelaide, early April 2022.

I particularly love how Molly McCloskey’s narrator, Rachel, elucidates her experience of falling in love with her first husband in the passage above: how she moves away from romance to something gentler, and kinder, and deeper.

Like Rachel, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t live with a sense that I was inherently wrong, flawed, in need of forgiveness. I sense that my experience is a relatively common one, but I also sense that in me the feeling is perhaps particularly strong.


Aldinga wetlands, April 2022.

How to manage anxiety: Be kind. Be curious. I read these words somewhere once. I remind myself of them from time to time. In their simplicity and compassion, they are helpful. What McCloskey’s narrator Rachel understands in the passage above is that kindness is inherent in true love. I think that’s why her words move me so much.

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 …