Raw

Other people’s words about … making art

What is it that makes some artists productive all their lives, while others founder at the slightest hurdle, convinced of their own lack of talent? Are those who continue to produce art more gifted? Or are they simply more certain of themselves?

But perhaps her ambition outweighed her abilities, or else her perfectionist’s unappeasable eye scuttled what talent she had, for at art college she soon discovered she was no longer the best student — and indeed could not even capture the attention of her teachers … She was full of self-doubt, forced to recognise that a modicum of talent got you so far and no further, and that while she had imagined she was climbing the mountain, in truth she was only ever at the bottom.

From ‘The Landing
by Susan Johnson

A long time ago, just after I had had my second novel for young adults published, I talked with a woman who had just had her own first novel published. She told me that the thing she worried about most, as a writer, was that she would run out of time. She had so many more novels inside of her, she told me: so many ideas. What if she didn’t live long enough to write them all down?

I wonder now: was it an awareness of her own talent that enabled my writer friend to ask this question, or was it simply self-confidence? I don’t know. What I do know is that this was ten years ago, and she has written and published several more novels since then, and time does not appear to be running out for her. Not at all.

She made one last, honourable effort to become a full-time artist, but nothing she made satisfied her, nothing seemed original or bold or magnificent enough, everything was only half good. She strove for an aesthetic perfection she could never reach, and every day she did not reach it was a misery, the febrile pressure she placed on herself impossible to bear. She could not transfer to the canvas the perfect illuminated world inside her head; she was her own harshest critic and could not accept work she knew was not first rate. In the end, art had to be wonderful or nothing; there was no in between.

Perhaps an artist’s talent will wither away and die unless she nourishes it with a certain, requisite amount of self-confidence. Or perhaps her productivity has more to do with her courage and fortitude — with her dogged determination to carry on, free of caring — as Penny, the character about whom Susan Johnson is writing in the passages I’ve quoted in today’s post, finally discovers.

And Penny will pick up her paintbrush in an ecstasy of release … [S]he will try to make whatever she is making, imperfectly and full of mistakes. She will take long-service leave; not certain what she is going to do with what remains of her life, but certain she is making something manifest, exploiting to the best of her abilities — or the worst! — her raw materials. She is herself, no-one finer. She might travel, or she might not; her project might come to something, or it might not, but, suddenly, she will be free of caring. She will see how far she can take a line for a walk.

Perfect illuminated world

Tip your head back and look up at the sky

Other people’s words about … the sky

Axel … breathed out, trying for calm. He tipped his head back, looked at the sky, wide and empty of trouble. His heart slowed. The moment passed.

From ‘Shell
by Kristina Olsson

Oh, that beautiful sky …

No time like now

Other people’s words about … cages

At not yet thirty, she can feel her life shrinking into the gentle sameness of her days and she knows she is pacing back and forth in a comfortable cage of her own construction. She needs someone to bump against, to disrupt things. she can’t go on like this, she knows. She must resolve the tension between longing and fear.

From ‘The Fragments
by Toni Jordan

I’m back! I’ve missed blogging. I’ve missed you all, too.

And I’ve gone on collecting other people’s words, gone on taking photographs of the world around me, gone on wanting to have a place to keep the words I’ve collected and the pictures I’ve taken. So I’ve decided, rather than ending this blog completely, as I first planned to do, to pop in every now and then with a quote I love or a photograph I’ve taken. I’d like to keep the practice up, and I hope that some of you will continue to enjoy reading the words I’ve found, or seeing the photographs I’ve taken, as you might have done in the past.

Last year, as some of you may remember, I lost my job. In the end, instead of looking for a new job straight away, I decided I would take a few weeks or months off first. And so that’s what I’ve been doing in the weeks since I last wrote: living on my savings and trying out, meantime, new habits, new practices. I’m trying to disrupt some of my old ways, like Caddie in the passage I’ve quoted above; I’m trying to stop pacing back and forth in a comfortable cage of [my] own construction; I’m trying to let my life expand, rather than to shrink. There’s no time like now!

Because there is always a way through … always

Thank you for accompanying me so far on my blogging journey. Thank you, too, to the readers who wrote to me and encouraged me to keep posting, if only sporadically: who told me I was missed. I hope you all find pleasure in the posts that are still to come.

Rebecca xo

Fleeting

Other people’s words about … happiness

Happiness doesn’t come in the way I expected; not a massing of good things over time, but a succession of small, strange and unowned moments — the sun makes a hot oblong on the bedroom floor and I stand in it with my eyes closed. The coriander germinates in the window box and up comes the seedling. The bled radiators stop knocking at night.

From ‘Dear Thief
by Samantha Harvey

I thought it was apt to write a post on happiness today, to accompany my previous post on sadness — though perhaps both posts are, after all, about the same thing, simply taken from opposing perspectives.

But also it seemed apt to me to write a post about happiness because today’s post, I think, will be my last post, at least on this blog, twenty-one words.

Over the years, I’ve written about many things on this blog — the sea, the sky, vomiting, writing, books, therapy, running, walking, travel, birds, flowers, hope, to name a few. But in many ways, I see, looking back, that I’ve been exploring, post by post, what it means to live a small life in the happiest, or at least the most meaningful and most humble, way I know.

Happiness, as Harvey says, isn’t something you can accumulate or amass; it most surely isn’t something you can own. It flits into our lives and out again. Writing this blog has been, for me, both a meaningful and a humbling experience — and in that sense it has been a happy experience for me, too. I don’t know if my posts have brought you, my readers, any moments of happiness, but I hope so: I do.

I spent over half my life waiting for the accumulation of happiness and then I realised that it doesn’t accumulate at all, it just occurs here and there, like snow that falls and never settles. Not the drifts that you and I imagined we would plough ourselves into, but instead gently, opportunistically, holding one’s tongue out to catch the flakes.

I’m not sure yet whether I’ll leave this blog up for posterity (i.e. for a little while!) or whether I’ll take it down altogether, or whether, perhaps, I’ll change its privacy settings so that you can only access it by contacting me first. (Please feel free to do that, if it’s what I do.)

In the meantime, I’ll go on running and walking and hoping and reading and looking, looking, looking.

I’m still on Instagram and post there regularly — mostly photos of the beach and of nature (no selfies, I promise!). Please feel free to hop on over and join me there if you’d like.

Fleeting

Thank you to everyone who’s read this blog. Take care of yourselves. Keep reading and looking. Keep savouring those fleeting moments of happiness, whenever they come your way.

Snatched phrases: the sky

Look at the sky. (It’s amazing. It’s always amazing.)

From ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’
by Matt Haig

Matt Haig is right. The sky is amazing.

It is always amazing.

It is a story that is forever unfolding …

PS Shout-out to my father, whose birthday it is today! 

Snatched phrases: on translation

But a certain dullness of mind seems an almost necessary qualification, if not for every public man, at least for everyone seriously engaged in making money.

From ‘The Idiot’
by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Hmmm … read and weep. Dostoevsky’s observation about people is as relevant now as it was when he wrote it in the late nineteenth century. If only our public figures, our business people, our politicians would take heed!

But onto other things — no more weeping for now. One of the overarching reasons I’ve had for writing this blog in the last few years has been to give myself (and hopefully you, my readers) the chance to explore the joys of reading: to revel in other people’s words, to find meaning in their thoughts and the way they express them, to learn from them, to find communion and kinship with them. As I’ve remarked before, without books and reading, I would be a far lonelier person.

Recently, I’ve found a different kind of companionship in my reading. On Mother’s Day earlier this year, my mother and I started a reading ‘project’ together, our own little two-woman book club. At her suggestion, we have decided to read works of translation. We take it in turns to pick a title and read it, and then we exchange titles, and, having read them, meet up for coffee or for a walk to talk about them. The Idiot was one of her choices.

My mother is an inveterate reader. She reads widely, hungrily, curiously. Her joy in reading is contagious and almost palpable. I’m glad — and privileged — to have ‘caught’ that joy from her. And I’m extra glad to be exploring new books with her, to be having my world opened by her and by the writers she chooses.

Meanwhile, while we’re on the subject of translation, here’s the thing about reading, and the happiness you can find in it: it translates into life.

And that happiness is only amplified when it is shared.

Tentative

Other people’s words about … railway stations

The ideal place for coffee is part of a railway station. I have always felt this. There’s something about the stillness amid the bustle, something about standing and stopping as a great crowd flows around you. One of my best railway coffee stops was Ramses Station in Cairo on an undergrad trip twenty years ago: citizens of the world drinking beakers of sweet black tea and eating brittle, quietly disappointing cakes on their way to places I would never visit myself, a sun-stained ruffle of Baedeker pages to everything I saw and touched and smelled.

From ‘The Unmapped Mind
by Christian Donlan

Picture a young couple arriving in Cairo, not by train as Christian Donlan describes it in the passage above, but by bus, having met and travelled together from Jerusalem. Now picture the young woman, a few weeks later, leaving Cairo again, this time by train, this time, like Donlan, from Ramses Station.

It is 1993. The young man is American. He has been studying at the American University in Cairo, learning Arabic. The young woman is Australian. The two are very much in love, though newly, tentatively, messily. After a few weeks of living together in Cairo, he has told her that her English-speaking, Western ways are distracting him from immersing himself in the Egyptian world — its language, its people, its life — in the way he’d planned to before they met.

And so she has agreed to leave.

The day he takes her to Ramses Station, she doesn’t see anyone drinking coffee the way Donlan describes it. She sees only a grimy railway platform swirling with people. It’s grimy and swirling with people in the same way that all of Cairo is grimy and swirling with people. She’s decided to catch the train to Luxor, to Aswan, to take a felucca down the Nile — to do all the things that tourists do when they are in Egypt, though she prides herself on not being a tourist and has till now studiously avoided doing those things.

They stand on the platform and hold each other, and because they are young and tentative and newly, messily in love, they find it hard to let go of each other.

I don’t want you to leave, he whispers.

You’ll hate me if I stay, she answers.

Both of these things are true.

And so she says good bye and shoulders her backpack. The last thing she will remember of him before the train departs is the way he turns, finally, to walk out of the station, calling out his farewell over his shoulder to her in Arabic.

In Arabic. Yes. She takes this as a reminder of the resentment he has felt towards her. That resentment sparks just enough anger in her to make her climb up onto the train without looking back.

Three weeks later, she will arrive back in Ramses Station, in a train from Upper Egypt. She will get out of the train and walk through the station and make her way along the crowded, grimy streets back to the apartment where he is living, where they lived together before she left. He won’t be expecting her — or not exactly, not that day. There are no mobile phones in 1993, and there is no landline in the apartment. She has tried to call him several times from various pay phones in the rickety, dusty streets of Aswan but they have spoken only once.

Come back, he said over the phone, his voice raw and husky from sleepless nights and cheap cigarettes. I miss you. I can’t live without you. Please come back.

And so she has come back.

Cairo, 1993

You know, perhaps, from previous posts that I travelled far and wide in my early twenties, and that some of that travel was certainly by train. You know, perhaps, that I lived in Cairo for a short period in my early twenties. So maybe the story above is mine, or maybe it’s a composite of stories I heard or witnessed along the way during my travels, or maybe I made it up.

All of these things may be true.

Here is a fact about Ramses Station, though — or rather, a fact about any railway station. They are full of stories — arrivals, departures; journeys to, journeys from. Because of this, railway stations are full of all the emotions that such things entail: joy, sorrow, confusion, hope, longing; they are full of emotions that are new and tentative and messy, that are tinged with love.

And, if for no other reason than that, the railway stations you’ve arrived at, the railway stations you’ve departed from, are worth remembering, long afterwards. Long after you know you’ll never come back.