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.

Out & about: enough

‘When you’re walking the view shifts and changes.
Walking’s a form of hope.’

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

Some days, after work, I don’t have time to go for the kind of walk that the passage above, which I quote on this blog so often, describes: a long walk, a wandering walk, a wondering walk. Some days there just aren’t enough hours of daylight left — not for that kind of walk.

There might be a few moments, though — just enough moments to dash down the road and glimpse a dark swathe of clouds in the sky —

— or the branches of a sheoak tree silhouetted against cotton-pink clouds —

— or a sea turned opal.

Beacons to guide the ships home

The day I took the photos in this post was one of those days. All I had left of that day were those few moments — the last few moments of the day. So I told myself that they were enough, those few moments.

And for a few moments they were. They really were.

Chasing clouds

If I am thinking at all when I run, this is a sign of a run gone wrong — or, at least, of a run that has not yet gone right. The run does not yet have me in its grip. I am not yet in the heartbeat of the run; the rhythm of the run has not done its hypnotic work. On every long run that has gone right, there comes a point where thinking stops and thoughts begin.

From ‘Running with the Pack:
Thoughts from the Road on Meaning & Mortality’

by Mark Rowlands

I suspect — no, in fact, I know — that I don’t run far enough, or long enough, or hard enough to have experienced the same kind of long run to which Mark Rowlands is referring here. And yet, even on my kind of run — the kind of run when you run simply for the joy of the moment and nothing else — there comes a point when the rhythm of the run [begins to do] its hypnotic work for me.

That’s why I came back to running, twenty years after I stopped. I am a worrier, a thinker — no, an over-thinker. But I’m not when I run. For those twenty years when I stopped running, I couldn’t forget the sweet spot I used to find at some point during a run, when, as Rowland puts it, thinking stops and thoughts begin. And I couldn’t find it, either — not outside of running.

Elsewhere in his book, Rowlands has this to say about why he runs:

People sometimes assess the quality of their runs in terms of times, distances and also in more sophisticated ways: the AIs — the number, duration and intensity of the aerobic intervals they have inserted into the miles they have run; the TUT — the total uphill time and so on. But, as far as I am concerned, times, distances, AIs, TUTs — these are all just contingencies, incidentals. Every run has its own heartbeat; the years have taught me this. The heartbeat of the run is the essence of the run, what the run really is.

I’m with Rowlands here. I don’t do tech — either in my day-to-day life or while I’m out running. I don’t own a smartphone, or a fitbit, or a garmin. I don’t even own a pedometer. The only things I take with me when I go for a run are my (non-digital) watch and (sometimes, but not always) my camera. That’s it. I put my watch on my wrist, and I hold my camera in one hand, and then I go out and run. I know roughly how far I run, but only roughly, which is exactly how I like it.

Every run has its own heartbeat, Rowlands says, and then, without skipping a beat: the years have taught me this. Those words — heartbeat, the years, taught — have nothing to do with AIs or TUTs (neither of which I’d heard of, before I read Rowlands’s book), and everything to do with living. With learning. With growing.

Which are some of the other reasons that I run.

I took the photos you see in today’s post on a run one Sunday morning in late August. I ran northwards from home, in the opposite direction to the jetty that you will have seen pictured on other posts in my blog: beyond the breakwater and along the water’s edge by the yacht club and marina. As you can see, there was virtually no wind, though the air was brisk and cold.

It was a blue day — blue sky, blue water, blue paint on the boat ramps. Blue. Blue. Blue. My eyes felt wide open to the blue. I had promised myself that I would stop whenever I wanted to, whenever I saw something that struck my fancy, and that is what I did: I ran and stopped, ran and stopped, ran and stopped. I ran into the blue. I lost my rhythm and then found it again, several times, and it took me a while to figure out that this was my rhythm, on that morning, at least.

And I felt, as I often do when I’m out running, that I had found my heartbeat again: that I had heard it, and understood it, and honoured it.

That, too, is why I run.

On purpose

Other people’s words about … meaning

Some people … believe they have to find their purpose to live fully … [But] it is perfectly fine — and in fact recommended — to simply live each of your moments fully and marvel at it all. What if that is your purpose?

From ‘The Energy Guide
by Dr Libby Weaver

I am not much one for self-help books, these days, especially ones that focus on how to find happiness or health. I don’t think — as I did when I was younger, as young people so often do — that health and happiness are things you can seek out or earn, or that they are things you can, or should, feel entitled to.

But I do like Libby Weaver’s words here, even though her book falls squarely into that category of books I’ve just derided. I like her words because what else does it make sense to do other than to simply live each of your moments fully, no matter what each of those moments is like, or what is happening during it? What better thing can we do as we live out our days than marvel at it all?

Weaver goes on to say:

Consider that the real purpose of anyone’s life is to be fully involved in living. Be present for the journey. Act on what you care about.

You could call the attitude Weaver is advocating mindful, if you so chose. Or you could call it sensible. Or humble. Or grateful. Whatever you call it, I think it’s an attitude worth cultivating.

Winter sunrise: be present.

Because unlike health and happiness, unlike riches and freedom, unlike love and success, unlike youth and beauty, unlike wisdom and intelligence, being fully involved in living is achievable. It’s not always easy, but it’s possible.

And that, I think, is a good place to start.

Chasing clouds

Running affords the freedom of distance, coupled with the literary appeal of solitude. There’s a meditative cadence to the union of measured breaths and metered strides. Writers and runners both operate on linear planes,
and the running writer soon realises [that] the relationship between art and sport is a mutually beneficial one.’

From ‘Why Writers Run’
by Nick Ripatrazone
in The Atlantic

I’d heard about the connection between writing and running before — or at least about certain writers, like Joyce Carol Oates and Haruki Murakami, who run as well as write, and who believe that their running helps their writing. And I’d always understood the connection instinctively, though I don’t think I could have put it into words as Ripatrazone does (fairly baldly and glibly in some spots, it must be said) in his piece for The Atlantic, which I’ve quoted throughout this post.

Running, the argument goes, clears the mind. Writers stuck on a sentence should lace their sneakers and go for a jog, knowing that when they return, they will be a bit sweatier, more tired, but often more charged to run with their words. This is Ripatrazone’s advice, at any rate.

While I would quibble with any shoulds when it comes to either running or writing — what works for some people won’t work for others; and one person’s meditative jog is another person’s sweaty, heart-pounding, back-spasming nightmare — Ripatrazone also has this to say, which I love:

Writing exists in that odd mental space between imagination and intellect, between the organic and the planned. Runners must learn to accept the same paradoxes, to realise that each individual run has its own narrative,
with twists and turns and strains.’

I’ve been struggling for some time to articulate why writing became such a tortured process for me over the last couple of years, and, equally, why I turned to running around this time with such joy. I knew that when I ran I felt a sense of clarity that I don’t otherwise feel; but still, I didn’t think the two things were connected — especially since, not long after I began to run again regularly, I made the decision to stop writing altogether, at least for now.

Now, though, reading Ripatrazone’s words, I wonder if it was that odd mental space … between the organic and the planned that running creates in me that allowed me to stop writing.

The only way I can explain this is to tell the story behind the pictures in today’s post, which I took on a short, gentle run in late July, after a particularly torrid day at work. I’d got home just in time to change into my running clothes and make it onto the beach before the sun set. Once there, I ran in a northwesterly direction, with the sun ahead of me rather than at my back. And at the halfway point, at the breakwater, I stopped.

I stopped.

I stopped.

I took these photos, and I breathed in, and I felt the lowering sun on my skin, and I felt everything inside of me, finally, stop.

This, I think, is what running does for me: it allows me to stop. It brings me into a kind of stillness I don’t feel at any other time. Running, stopping, finding stillness: to say that these things are intimately connected with each other seems a contradiction in terms. But perhaps it’s not, because something shifted inside of me when I took up running again last year: I felt it almost immediately. That shift was what allowed me to stop writing, which was something — I see now — I had to do, in order to move forward in my life: and to move forward, also, in my writing (again, that contradiction in terms).

Perhaps, in the end, Ripatrazone puts it better than me — not in his clichéd injunction to writers to run in order to improve their writing, but in his description of the paradoxes that both writers and runners must face.

In any case, on the day that I’m speaking of, the day that I took these photos, once I had stopped for a while to breathe in, and to look about, and to rest, I knew that I was ready to move again. And so I ran home, with the sun sinking into the sea behind me and the air gradually chilling, and a sense of stillness all about me, and also inside of me.

Deep, deep inside.