The map of my face

Other people’s words about … making peace with yourself

My face is a map of all I have lived. Some days, I feel beautiful and right in my skin. Some days, I don’t. The truth is, we never really get fixed; instead, we try to make peace, daily, with who and what we are. We learn to embrace the glorious, imperfect whole rather than punishing ourselves because of our flawed parts.

Anyway.

From ‘Before and After’, by Libba Bray
in ‘Hope Nation’, edited by Rose Brock

I wrote in a recent post about ageing and how I feel about it as I near the age of fifty. About how, as I’ve aged, I’ve grown more rather than less conscious of the way people perceive me.

Perhaps, in that post, I conveyed the sense that I thought beauty was solely an external concept, that it had only to do with one’s physical shape, one’s embodied self. If I did, I apologise. I have always known that beauty comes from within. As I age, I become even more aware of that than ever.

The dying of the light

You could read the words I’ve quoted in today’s post, from Libba Bray’s essay ‘Before and After’, as being about learning to come to terms with one’s physical imperfections and so-called flaws. Indeed, her essay is, at least in part, about how her physical appearance changed after she was involved as a young woman in a terrible motor vehicle accident in which she lost an eye.

But that’s not how I read her words. When she writes: Some days, I feel beautiful and right in my skin. Some days, I don’t, I take her I to mean her sense of her inner self, and how that inner, intangible self feels to reside in the physical husk of her body. When she writes: we try to make peace, daily, with who and what we are, I take her what to mean her embodied self, but I take her who to mean her inner self, her non-physical self.

Her soul, if you like.

We are each of us, in our daily experiences of living, enmeshed in both the physical and the non-physical aspects of life. Our understanding of beauty therefore encompasses those twin aspects. So, I think, does ageing, which we may experience as a sense of growing physical frailty or as a sense of growing wisdom (or, equally, of growing mental infirmity). The physical begets the non-physical — and, I suspect, vice versa.

So when I read Bray’s words, I felt an instant resonance with them. We learn to embrace the glorious, imperfect whole, she says, and I take the word whole to mean the whole of life: physical, non-physical, and everything in between.

Which I, too, embrace.

*

Bray’s essay is, in fact, about hope rather than beauty or ageing, and it is addressed specifically to teenagers and young adults. In it, Bray writes about how she, as a very young woman, found hope amidst despair. Despair, she makes clear, is primarily an experience of loneliness, and hope, therefore, is an experience of the opposite of loneliness. Of love.

Or, as Bray puts it in (spoiler alert) the last three lines of her essay:

You are not alone.
You are not alone.
You are not alone.

Growth

Lately I’ve been reading about …

If only I’d known

Other people’s words about … what’s important (or not)

I found a studio where I could practise a particular kind of semi-cultish yoga; I sweated on my purple mat for ninety minutes to pounding trance beats, drank smoothies in the vegan cafe, relished the feeling of freezing sweat on my cheeks when I threw my coat on over my leggings and walked in the snow to the Q train.

Maybe this will be the year I’ll learn to stand on my head, I thought, maybe a headstand is the thing I will accomplish in 2014. I thought about it a lot, like a headstand was a thing that was important.

From ‘This Really isn’t About You’
by Jean Hannah Edelstein

If only I’d known. That’s the feeling Jean Hannah Edelstein is describing in the passage above. In her case, these words applied to a period in her life when she didn’t yet know that she had Lynch syndrome, a hereditary condition that predisposes her to developing cancer later in her life.

If only. If only. Who hasn’t said that to themselves, at some point in their lives? If only I’d known, I’d have focused on other things. If only I’d known, I’d have made different plans. I’d have done more; I’d have said more; I’d have tried more. I’d have been more.

Don’t tell me you haven’t ever thought that.

*

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks over here in my nook of the world, as I continue to try to find my way in the freelance world. I don’t know whether I’ll manage to make a living from freelance editing, in the end. But on tough days, uncertain days, I remind myself that at least I’ll always know that I tried.

Which makes for one less if only in my life.

Grey skies

And meanwhile, in my spare time, I’ve gone wandering beneath grey skies, and blue skies, and cloudy skies, and clear skies. Because there’s no hint of an if only whenever I’m out wandering.

Blue(-ish) skies

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Rescue

Other people’s words about … giving up

A few years ago I was living in a loft with a man and two cats and it started to happen again. In the morning, in the split second between sleep and waking, I would almost accidentally start to pray. I’d feel sunlight through the slits in the blinds, register that the alarm on my iPhone was going off, start hitting the bed and the windowsill and digging under myself to find it and tap its little snooze ‘button.’ There were cats on either side of my head, and my human husband, to the right, was snoring hairily on his back, his hands curling and uncurling on his chest like the paws of a tickled kitten. But despite how many of us there were in the bed, I felt alone and too small to survive, too permeable, too disorganized, and trapped in something I didn’t have the words to describe. And something in me stretched up in a physical way toward the place where God used to be. I’d wake up and remember: there is no God. But I wanted to give up anyway, as if in doing so I could be rescued.

From ‘Letter from Williamsburg’
by Kristin Dombek
in The Best American Essays 2014, edited by John Sullivan and Robert Atman

I grew up in a non-religious family, but I was christened and baptised, and from primary school onwards I went to a Church of England (now Anglican) school. At school, we sang hymns and said prayers in the Assembly Hall every morning; and we had weekly lessons in Christian Education; and we went to special services in the church affiliated with the school at Easter and Christmas; and we had a special school hymn, which we sang (off by heart) at Speech Day at the end of each school year. I can still recite the Lord’s Prayer all the way through.

All of which is to say, I was instructed as a child in the habit of faith. Maybe that’s why I remember talking to God and making bargains with God all the way through my childhood and on into adolescence.

Dear God, I would say inside my head, if you give me this, I will do that. And: Dear God, let me get through this. And: Dear Lord, make things get better. Please make things get better.

That kind of thing.

Stretching up (1)

The kind of prayer I was taught at school, the non-bargaining kind of prayer we practised there, is an art: it’s a ritual, a discipline. An act of community, too. But the other kind of prayer, the bargaining kind of prayer, the chatty kind of prayer — the kind Kristin Dombek describes when she writes, I would almost accidentally start to pray (my emphasis) — is instinctive. And solitary. It comes, I think, from something deep inside of us: a yearning to feel better. Or to do better. Or to be better. A yearning to be heard.

Because who doesn’t want to stretch up — in an almost physical way, as Dombek puts it — to something outside oneself, something bigger than oneself? Who doesn’t want to be answered?

Who doesn’t want to be heard?

Stretching up (2)

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Astonished

Other people’s words about … ageing

When I was thirty, I felt sure that a paradoxical reward awaited me at sixty, if I made it that far. Having never had any beauty to lose, I reasoned, I’d be exempted from mourning its loss. But as I’ve grown older, this proposition has turned inside out. I see now that I did have at least some beauty — not much, but some — and exactly because I had so little, I could hardly afford to lose it. Now, at this inconvenient moment, I realise that I do care about my looks. I find myself spending more energy compensating for my inadequacies than I used to. I search for becoming clothes. I color my hair. I experiment, in a gingerly [sic] way, with makeup. I suspect these efforts don’t do a lot for me, though they do make some difference, if only in letting people know I’m trying.

From ‘At Sixty-Five’
by Emily Fox Gordon

I am closer to fifty years old than I am to sixty-five: my fiftieth birthday is next year, 2020. And yet, already I understand that inconvenient moment Emily Fox Gordon describes in the passage above.

When I was a young woman — that is to say, when I was in my twenties and thirties — I went makeup-free. I washed my (uncoloured) hair and let it drip dry; I applied nothing other than sunblock to my skin (not even moisturiser). And, oh, I bought all my clothes from op-shops: jeans, shirts, trousers for work, jackets. I still remember the pretty, floral-patterned strappy dress I bought from my local St Vincent’s op-shop to wear to my niece-in-law’s wedding, which cost $3. I happened to be very thin at the time, because of a digestive illness, and within six months of the wedding, I was well again, which meant that I could no longer fit into it. But I kept that dress for years afterwards. Every now and then, I would pull it out of my wooden chest to look at it: to run my fingers over the soft, thin, flowered fabric.

$3! To prepare for the wedding, I’d pulled the dress over my head twenty minutes beforehand, brushed my hair and tied it back in an elastic band, slipped on a pair of sandals (the only pair I owned), and then spent a couple of minutes debating over whether I’d need a (secondhand) jacket or not, because it was an outdoor wedding, and there was a cool breeze blowing through my window. And then I grabbed my partner’s hand, and we left for the wedding.

Yorke Peninsula: View from the cliffs

If you had asked me during those years what guided my fashion style, I would have said — very proudly, very innocently — that I went for a ‘natural’ look. What I wouldn’t have said, because I didn’t yet realise it, was that I went for a young, natural look. I didn’t yet understand that the word ‘natural’, when it comes to a woman’s beauty, her appearance, is synonymous with the word ‘young’. I couldn’t have understood it back then. I was too young.

*

I found Fox Gordon’s essay in The Best American Essays 2014, a copy of which I borrowed from my local library to take with me on our latest camping trip to Yorke Peninsula. (Yes, I’m still enjoying reading essays.) It is a short essay, as essays go, but it is wise and witty and forthright, and almost every word in it rings true for me. (You can read it in its entirety here.)

Thirty years ago I assumed I would take the eccentric route as I aged, become one of those bluff, outspoken, truth-telling old women people claim to admire, even as they avoid them. That would have been in keeping with my strong contrarian impulse. But instead of growing bolder and more heedless, I seem to be growing more circumspect, more nervously observant of the proprieties, more conscious of other people’s feelings.

Now that I’m (almost) fifty, I, too, find myself becoming more circumspect, both in the way I dress and in the way I speak and act. I feel [my age] in my invisibility to strangers, Fox Gordon writes. And it fascinates me — no, let me be honest here: it astonishes me — that as women like Fox Gordon, women like me, grow more invisible, we grow in tandem more worried about how other people perceive us. This is a contrarian impulse that we could, perhaps, never have predicted when we were younger — again, precisely because we were younger.

Yorke Peninsula again: Clouds, reflected

*

The day after we got back from Yorke Peninsula, I rode my bike to Semaphore, where I often go to buy my groceries and to borrow my library books. I parked and locked my bike outside the sushi shop, bought a sushi roll, and then wandered down the main street towards the library. There was a woman at the ATM as I walked by, her back to me as she withdrew her cash. She was around my age, or perhaps a little older: tall, lean, wearing easy, worn clothes, her hair tied back in a long, straight, grey ponytail. She had a slender face but a strong profile: short eyelashes, pointy nose. No makeup, as far as I could tell. I glanced at her as I walked by — once, and then again. Then again.

I thought of Fox Gordon. I thought of the old(er) woman I hope I will one day become. It came to me, then, that I was looking right at her, my role model, standing at the ATM in all her natural, worn, grey beauty.

There is room, I believe, for all of us. We can be contrarian, if we dare.

Yorke Peninsula again: Three clouds

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been reading online lately:

An open and shut case

Other people’s words about … signs

[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:

What it means to be free

Lately I’ve been reading about … how to write

Last year, I stopped writing. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I had stopped writing forever, or if it was just for a while. In my heart, I was convinced it was forever. I felt sad, but also strangely certain. I felt, very strongly, that I had come to the end of the writing I could do, and that I had to learn to let go. To move on.

A few months later, I lost my job as the Senior Editor at a university press. I felt far less sanguine about losing my job than I did about stopping writing, because it wasn’t my decision. And because I loved my job. And because I didn’t know what I would do next, or how I would earn an income. If I’m honest, I still feel all of those things now. I still don’t know what will come next.

But for now, I’m taking a break; I’m not actively job-seeking. I’ve been spending my time building a website to set myself up as a freelance editor, and … I’ve been writing again, working on an old manuscript that I thought I had abandoned forever, and feeling — at least sometimes — as though I might actually, one day, be able to finish it.

Look up. Let go. Move on.

I feel freer now to write than I did last year, or indeed than I did during the years preceding that. I don’t know why this is, except that, without the regular schedule of getting up and going to work four or five days a week, without the commitment to a tiring and demanding (though rewarding) job, my mind feels clear. And the clarity gives me courage. I feel brave enough, suddenly, to take a risk again in the creative sphere, to take the risk of failing.

Because I see now, though I didn’t see it last year when I was still deeply enmeshed in my work, that my fear of failing as a writer had, in the last few years, grown very strong. It had become, at least as far as writing was concerned, incapacitating.

It’s true that not all hardworking writers publish. Often the circumstances that drive the industry are out of our control. But the willingness to write through what might seem to be an unending succession of drafts — however you define “draft” — is one factor that you can control.

From ‘What if All Writing is Just Drafts, Forever?’
by Joseph Scapellato
At The Literary Hub

One of the things that’s so tricky about writing is that there are no rules, no surefire ways to creative success. Some writers write every day, without fail, setting themselves a target (whether that’s a word count, or a certain number of hours they spend at their desk, or a publishing deadline). They write draft after draft, like Joseph Scapellato in the passage I’ve quoted above (which you can read in its entirety here), and in doing so they find a way through to the other end: to the finished book.

But, like Heather Havrilesky in the passage I’ve quoted below (which you can read here), other writers approach writing in a less disciplined way, determined to seek only the joy, only the moments of flow.

Why is my routine so messy, random, and kind of lazy? It’s because I don’t force it anymore. I feel like my brain now knows that I don’t actually have to work that much, I just have be in front of my computer for those times when everything is flowing and it’s possible to hit that high note. I’m not going to torture myself the rest of the time.

From an interview with Heather Havrilesky
At Extraordinary Routines

Clearly, there is no one, right path that every writer must go down in order to write a book. What wasn’t clear to me until very recently, though, is that there isn’t even one, right path that an individual writer must go down in order to write a book. The process, at least for me, this particular individual writer, is a learning one. It changes with the book you’re writing, and with the years, and with the state of your (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) health.

I still don’t know whether I’ll finish writing the book I’m currently writing, which I began so many years ago. Even if I do finish it, I still don’t know if it will be publishable. But for now, I’m grateful to be experiencing a feeling of freedom again, the freedom to be myself, whatever that means, to write because I want to write, without becoming enmeshed in either hope or despair.

Betrayed

Other people’s words about … anxiety

It took me years to work out that what the experts tell you isn’t always right, no matter how expert they may be, nor how much you may have paid them to tell you what they’ve told you. Fiona Wright explores this theme in the passage below, in relation to her own experience of searching for a cure for her anxiety — a cure that the experts she has consulted have not, despite their expertise, as yet been able to help her find.

This was not supposed to be the lesson that I learnt, she writes. And that, right there, is the power that those so-called experts can hold over us: that they can make us feel that way; that we can come to believe, from them, that there is a lesson — one particular lesson and no other — that we are supposed to learn.

It’s enough, I think, to struggle with poor health, mental or physical or both, without also coming to feel a failure for not responding to the treatment or advice that the experts offer us. Betrayal is the word Wright uses — a strong word, but it is apt.

This feeling, I was right to be nervous, is to me the worst of all the things I think and feel out of anxiety, at least in part because it feels like a cruel joke. Clinical psychologists insist that the problem with anxiety is that the anxiousness — that tension in the gut and shoulders, the clamped jaw and cramping rib cage, the wildly circulating thinking and breathless panic — is always disproportionate, always misplaced; that the fear itself, that is, is always worse than the thing that makes us afraid. And so the treatment focuses on exposure, on deliberately coming into contact with the things we fear and then coming out the other side unscathed in order to learn the hollowness of the focus (and locus) of our fear. So when I get this feeling — I was right to be nervous — it always feels like a betrayal: this was not supposed to be the lesson that I learnt.

From ‘A Regular Choreography
in ‘The World was Whole’
by Fiona Wright

Wildly circulating

Note:
Fiona Wright is an Australian poet and writer. In her essays, she writes with candid, almost forensic insight into her experience of living with chronic physical and mental illness. You can read more of her work here.