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 …

Only [dis]connect

Other people’s words about … beauty

I wondered if a more complex language like [my mother’s native language] Korean had a singular word to describe the feeling of getting off a long shift of a physically demanding job and finding that, for at least half an hour after, everything, every last thing, was too beautiful to bear.

Jenny asked the question so simply — ‘Okay, what do you want to talk about?’ — and I nearly reached across the table and grabbed her hands back, whispered thanks against each of her knuckles. I was about to ask her opinion on lakes and oceans — which did she prefer, contained and musty, or vast and salty? — when she suddenly sat up straight, eyes wide. ‘So — what did you think of that meeting today? Hold nothing back.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I don’t know, it was fine.’

from Pizza Girl
by Jean Kyoung Frazier

I thought of Sally Rooney’s novel Beautiful World, Where Are You? when I read the passage above. In Beautiful World, Rooney’s characters variously mourn the loss of the sense they used to have that they were moving through a beautiful world, or they lament the ugliness of the everyday world, or they remark upon what Rooney calls a hidden reality: the presence at all times, in all places, of a beautiful world.

Sunset, early July 2022.

I think this is what Kyuoung Frazier’s narrator is getting at. She wants to tell Jenny about the beautiful world she sees all around her — but Jenny, like everyone else in the narrator’s life, either doesn’t want to hear what she has to say or doesn’t know how to hear it.

Some years ago when I was going through a difficult patch, a friend of mine offered to exchange a daily photograph with me via text message. ‘We’ll just send each other a picture of something we see,’ she said. ‘Something we like. Something that makes us smile. We’ll share our pictures, and it’ll be a way to reach out. To say hello.’

Dune flowers, early July 2022.

We ended up exchanging daily photographs for over a year, and it was a way to say hello, but it was also so much more. What I loved most about our exchange, beyond the sense of connection it gave me with another human being, was the knowledge that we were each finding something beautiful in our day and then sharing it with someone else. Passing the beauty on.

Maybe we should all share more beauty. Maybe it doesn’t matter if beauty is fleeting and makes us feel fragile. Maybe that’s exactly why we should keep on sharing it.

Before sunset, early July 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Revelation

Other people’s words about … secrets

‘Philip,’ [his mother Rose] said. ‘There are things I could tell you.’
‘Tell them,’ Philip said.
‘No.’
‘Why not? I’m prepared.’
She turned, looked at [Philip’s father Owen] slumped on the sofa. ‘Because I don’t believe that just because something’s a secret it therefore by definition has to be revealed,’ Rose said. ‘Keeping certain secrets secret is important to — the general balance of life, the common utility.’

From ‘The Lost Language of Cranes

by David Leavitt

I have always been fascinated by people like Philip’s mother Rose in the passage above: people who keep their own counsel. I have a tendency to do the opposite — to over-share, to talk to people for advice, to feel guilty if the life I lead isn’t entirely transparent. I’m not sure why. I may just be wired that way, but I suspect that years of therapy during adolescence and early adulthood ingrained this way of being in me. When you are used to talking things through with someone on a weekly basis, it can feel odd — unsafe, even — once you stop.

Gnarled trunk, early July 2022.

I like Rose’s matter-of-fact statement that secrets don’t have to be revealed. Sometimes, when I am uncertain about a course of action or a decision I have to make, I think of the oath that I’m told doctors must take: ‘First, do no harm.’ I find this oath, applied to life in general, one of the most useful creeds I know.

And so I find myself thinking that Rose may be right. If keeping a secret doesn’t harm anyone, then why feel compelled to reveal it? Why not learn to live in silence with one’s own truths?

Waterways, early July 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

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 …