Mantra

Other people’s words about … language

I watched them walk down the steps, [and then I] turned around in the hallway, and heard myself say, ‘I’m so lonely’. It shook me because this sentence had become an involuntary verbal tic. I seldom realised I was saying it or perhaps didn’t know that I was speaking the words out loud. I had started to experience this unbidden mantra even while I was still married, mumbling it before sleep, in the bathroom, or even at the grocery store, but it had become more pronounced in the last year. My father had it with my mother’s name. While he was sitting alone in a chair, before he dozed off, and later, in his room at the nursing home, he would utter Marit over and over. He did it sometimes when she was within hearing distance. If she answered the call, he seemed not to know that he had spoken. That is the strangeness of language: it crosses the boundaries of the body, is at once inside and outside, and it sometimes happens that we don’t notice the threshold has been crossed.

From ‘The Sorrows of an American’
by Siri Hustvedt

Have you ever had the same experience as Siri Hustvedt’s narrator Erik describes having in the passage I’ve quoted above — the experience, I mean, of a single phrase that comes to you frequently and (often) unbidden?

Threshold between sky and sea

Until I read this passage, I thought I was alone in this experience, although the phrase that comes to me is not the same phrase as Erik’s phrase. This phrase, my phrase, sometimes comes to me when I’m awake; and it sometimes comes to me when I’m drifting off to sleep; and it sometimes comes to me when I have a pen in my hand and am writing. The phrase, my phrase, is so familiar to me that it has written itself into my very sense of self.

Or perhaps it’s the other way around: the feeling I have when the words come to me is so strong, and so familiar, that it has formed itself into words.

Threshold between bird and world

As I’ve said many times before, I read to find accord with other people whom I will never meet in real life — either the writers themeselves, or the characters whom they create in their writing. Books are words, but they are more than words: their words cross a threshold between words and lived experience.

That, as Hustvedt herself puts it, is the strangeness of language. And, I would add, of life in this world.

Threshold between night and day

Through my own eyes

Other people’s words about … the seasons

I arrived in England on a grey March day in 2009. The Underground journey from Heathrow to Mile End took me through the western boroughs of London: tiled roofs and chimney pots in neat rows and the clouds as dark as oyster shells, rain falling from them in a barely perceptible mist. The city was exactly as I had expected to find it. Over the next weeks, daffodils bloomed, people started shedding their heavy coats, and my walk to work became greener by the day. Spring was arriving.

From ‘The Little Library Year’
by Kate Young

In ‘The Little Library Year’, a follow-up cookbook to her first cookbook, ‘The Little Library Cookbook’, Kate Young celebrates England and its seasons. Having been born in England myself, and having spent a year living there when I was nine and another year when I was fourteen, as well as having made several return visits in the first couple of decades of my adult life, I understand the joy Young finds in noting the distinctions between each of the seasons in England: the astonishing green of new growth in spring; the long, balmy days of summer; the crisp mornings and falling leaves of autumn; the bleak, dark, short days of winter.

First week of June: Groundsel flowers on the dune, Taperoo Beach

But unlike Young, I feel more attuned to the seasons in my adopted home country, Australia, which I moved to when I was three years old: the country I will, by choice, live in for the rest of my life. The statement that the seasons are less distinct here — a statement that Young is not the first person to make, let me hasten to add — troubles me. The seasons here are only less distinct if you choose to see them through Western/European eyes. If you see them through Australian eyes, and particularly through the eyes of a person indigenous to, or acutely at home with, this country, you will observe seasons that are very distinct from each other, though not in the same way as they are in England.

Last weeks of May: Grasstree in flower in the Aldinga Scrub

I’ve written a little on this before, here. While I don’t wish to repeat myself, and while I certainly don’t wish to criticise a fellow Australian writer (whose writing, and recipes, I love), I think it’s important to maintain an awareness of the lens through which we see and experience the world we live in. What we expect to see can so easily colour what we actually see.

Last week of May: High tide at Aldinga Beach at evening

This year, 2020, began in Australia with a fiercely hot summer that culminated in horrific bushfires, the kind that we have never experienced before, the kind that create their own weather system, their own tragic season of burning and death. Since then, the bushfires have gone out, at least for now, and the seasons have moved on. Here in South Australia, the heat has cooled, the days have shortened, rain has fallen, grass has turned green once more, and — particularly in the last week or so — frosts have bloomed over the land overnight.

First week of June: Winter sea under the jetty, Largs Bay

This year, in the enforced shutdown of the coronavirus pandemic, in a time when human activity has been quieter than usual, I have found myself even more aware than I usually am of the cycle of the days, the weeks, the months, the passing of the year. March, April, May and June have all been months that have been different from each other, in both subtle and distinctive ways, whether through a change in temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind direction, or the height of the sun and the moon.

First week of June: Still waters at North Haven, near the breakwater

Young writes: Throughout my first year [in England] — gloriously bright and beautiful spring, the blisteringly hot and heavy summer, the night that the leaves started to fall from the trees — I found it impossible not to be changed by the seasons. I, too, here in Australia, find it impossible not to be changed by the seasons. I am grateful to see them, and to document them with photographs like the ones that dot today’s post.

I try, always, to move through the world — my world, the one I live in — seeing it as it is. It is a lifelong project, and one I will never grow tired of.

First week of June: Lizzy the garden cat, soaking up the winter sun

More, more, more

Other people’s words about … not being afraid

I don’t know how to explain this, except that everything in my life changed after I had children. I didn’t understand how to parent. No one really knows how to parent until they have kids but I’ve often worried that I parent scared … I didn’t know there were ways to protect the people you loved and not be fearful. Or that we don’t control very much of anything that happens anyway.

From ‘Elsey Come Home’
by Susan Conley

It might seem odd that I feel an affinity with Susan Conley’s words in the passage above, given that I’m not a parent, given that parenthood hasn’t changed my life in the way that she, as a parent, describes it having changed hers. And yet there is such a resonance for me in this passage. Conley’s words apply, I think, not just to parenthood, but to life. I’ve often worried that I parent scared, she writes — but how easy would it be to change the wording slightly? To say instead, I’ve often worried that I live scared?

Quiet skes

I’ve had a funny week this week. I’m still fretting about the way, as the lockdown stage of the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end, the quietness of our world has also, inevitably, begun to recede. There were more people in the office at work this week, more bodies squeezed into our small call centre room, more voices speaking into telephones, more colleagues speaking over each other in an effort to be heard. There were more customers in the shops, cars on the road, commuters on the trains, pedestrians in the streets, people on the beach. There was more laughter, yes, but there was also more noise. There was more of everything.

We don’t control very much of anything that happens anyway, Conley writes, and she is right: just as we had no control over the pandemic happening in the first place, so, also, we don’t have much control over its aftermath. All we can control, as always, is our response to these things.

My response is to try to teach myself to carry the quietness I felt blossom inside of me during the lockdown back into the world as it reopens. But I have to confess that this remains a work in progress. I feel as though I have to learn to retune the strings of my heart: as though, when I plucked them during the lockdown, they made music, but now, once again, all they make is discordant, jangling noise.

So I have no solutions to offer in my post this week, except to say: here I am, plucking away, trying to make music, trying to make a song. Are you, too, learning to sing?

Quiet waters

Lately I’ve been reading …

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 …

Chasing clouds

It was the week of daffodils, and they were everywhere — outside everyone’s fences and shrubs, jubilant. It was that perfect running weather: cool and damp, still a little cloudy over the water.

From ‘Alternative Remedies for Loss’
by Joanna Cantor

The photos in today’s post come from a run I went on in early October, a muggy, warm, cloudy spring day, perfect for running, though different from the conditions Cantor describes above.

It was also the Monday of the October long weekend, as well as the first weekend of the school holidays, so the jetties at Semaphore and Largs Bay were jostling with people, and kids paddled and squealed in the water. Dogs dashed about on the shore, chasing balls.

This year, oddly, the usual swathes of variable groundsel flowers didn’t appear on the dunes around Taperoo and Largs Bay, though they did dot the dunes at Aldinga, further south. But the pigface plants blossomed as usual, their astonishing purple brightness undimmed by the cloudy sky above.

On the way home, I left the beach by a path I don’t usually take, and found this array of beach-thongs dotting the fence post, which brought a smile to my face:

Whatever your definition of perfect running weather, I’m pretty certain that any day on which you finish up your run with a smile comes close to perfect, regardless!

Chasing clouds

‘Some athletes love to talk about what a simple sport running is.
They say that all you need is a pair of sneakers.
That’s not true.
What you need is some freedom of movement
and the ability to see a clear path ahead of you.
It took me years to see that path and to find my pace.
When I finally got moving, I hoped I might be able to run forever.’

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

Around about a year ago, I wrote a post on this blog in response to lawyer-turned-long-distance-runner Robyn Arzón’s book Shut Up and Run. In that post, I wrote, in angry contradiction to Arzón, about the virtues of taking things slowly, of living humbly, of letting things unfold gently, whether or not your life is unfolding as you wish it would, or as you think it should. (You can read the post — which, by the way, I still stand by — in its entirety here.)

Here’s the thing about running, though, as an activity, as a practice: it lends itself to metaphors. That’s why so many runners, like Arzón and Menzies-Pike, write about it. Speed, distance, endurance, cadence, rhythm, pace — all of those things can be metaphors for something else: for life. It took me years to see that path and to find my pace, Menzies-Pike writes, of her running. And: When I finally got moving, I hoped I might be able to run forever.

Don’t tell me she’s not talking in metaphors.

As for me, I stopped mid-run — on a gorgeous, warm, still day last week; a day when all of coastal Adelaide seemed to be bathed in soft sunshine — to take the photos you see in today’s post. Afterwards, I put my camera away and lingered at the shore a while, before wandering back from the beach to the foreshore path and setting off again, back home.

Days like that — days of running beneath a soft blue sky, beside a silken blue sea — are days, simply, to be grateful for, days that feel as though they are unfolding as they should, or at least as you wish they would.

And so this post is the first in a new series on my blog entitled Chasing clouds. It is a companion series to my Out and about series, in essence. The theme in that series is walking; the theme in this one is running. Running, for me — like walking — is about wandering, about wondering. It is about chasing clouds.

Of course I’m using metaphors. Running, for me, is about hope.

Out and about: the last summer days

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

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

Here’s the thing I always forget as summer draws to a close and the annual grey-weather dread steals over me: there are moments, at this time of year, when the wind drops, and the sea becomes shining and silken and blue.

I took the photos in today’s post as I wandered the beach at Largs Bay one afternoon a few days ago, in the week before Easter. The day was so still, and the tide so low, that the pine trees along the Esplanade were reflected in small pools of seawater that had formed between the sandbar and the main ocean …

… and out on the water, ships hung suspended in blueness, somewhere between sea and sky:

It was an afternoon that reminded me that there’s joy and beauty in every season — yes, even in the seasons you’d rather not be heading into …