Fragmented

Other people’s words about … making time count

Most people miss their whole lives, you know. Listen, life isn’t when you are standing on top of a mountain looking at the sunset. Life isn’t waiting at the altar or the moment your child is born or that time you were swimming in deep water and a dolphin came up alongside you. These are fragments. Ten or twelve grains of sand spread throughout your entire existence. These are not life. Life is brushing your teeth or making a sandwich or watching the news or waiting for the bus. Or walking. Every day, thousands of tiny events happen and if you’re not watching, if you’re not careful, if you don’t capture them and make them count, you could miss it.

You could miss your whole life.

From ‘Addition’
by Toni Jordan

Many years ago, when I was in my very early twenties, and travelling through Israel, I climbed a mountain with a man I had just met. Perhaps it was more of a hill than a mountain, although in my memory it was a mountain. It was September, and it was hot, and later — perhaps that afternoon, or perhaps the following afternoon (time blurs a little in my memory, here) — we found a small cafe with tables outside, where we sat and drank glasses of mint tea, hot and sweet and syrupy, and we talked. We talked about fear (me) and excitement (him) and the lives that lay ahead of us (both of us), and I thought, in this one, tiny, fragmentary moment of my life, that the world was a strange and wonderful place.

But life, as Toni Jordan so eloquently writes in the passage I’ve quoted above, is more than the sum of such moments. And though I can think of other exhilarating moments in my life like the one I’ve described above, the moments of daily living are, I believe, what truly count.

Somehow, these moments of daily living have to sustain us. Somehow, they have to be enough.

Perhaps, as Jordan suggests, if we take the time to remark upon them, to capture them — even if only for ourselves — they will be.

Daily moments: winter sun, winter shadows

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Under big skies

Other people’s words about … the moon over the sea

He lay across the bed on top of the bedspread [in his room in the cottage by the sea]. Moon shadows of trees outside fell against the pine-based walls. The bedspread was tinged a bluish white, its pattern of roses transformed to a lunar landscape. He had forgotten about the particular lustre of a seaward moon. How when a moon hung over the ocean they were not separate entities, but a third element fused from their continuous correspondence. The planks of the cottage walls appeared fastened together by this faint glow.

From ‘The Dependents’
by Katharine Dion

I love Katharine Dion’s description, here, of the moon hanging over the sea. Years ago, when I worked the late shift, I used to drive home afterwards to our beach shack south of the city. The drive took me just under an hour, and by the time I turned off the main road onto the esplanade, it would be nearly midnight. From my car, I could see the beach beyond the cliffs, the waves rolling in to meet the shore and then falling back. The water was the colour of black ink, and on clear nights the moon hung above it in just the way Dion describes: as though it was connected to the ocean, as though the two were in communication with each other.

I would turn off the esplanade onto our own road feeling freed of the shift I’d just worked, returned to the life I wanted to live, by the ocean, under big skies.

Evening skies

I haven’t worked the late shift for years now, but I still feel the same gratitude for the house where I live, for the ocean at the end of the road, for the moon and the sun and the sky over the water, which I see every night and every day.

Every night. Every day.

The ocean at the end of the road

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 …

The labrador and the mandala

Other people’s words about … mindfulness and meditation

I am not a fan of ‘mindfulness’. I have tried. I have really, really tried. I was first taught it in a hut in Cambodia, by a smiley, wizened old monk. The main thing I remember, as I sat cross-legged on a very hard cushion, was trying not to think about the pain in my hips. Then there was the chi gong instructor on the holistic holiday in Skyros. Then there was the hairy American at the Thai spa I thought might be a cult. By then I was used to searching for my ‘inner smile’, but I drew the line at laughing on demand while flexing the muscles of my pelvic floor.

From ‘The Art of Not Falling Apart’
by Christina Patterson

As I’ve mentioned before, I go back and forth on the topic of meditation. These days, I feel both less caustic and less flippant about it than Christina Patterson describes feeling in the passage above, but still, overall, ambivalent.

But I do respect the practice of being present, which is, I believe, the essence of the Western interpretation of mindfulness. I see the value in being able to sit with your thoughts and feelings, being able to observe those thoughts and feelings and then let them pass. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that wellbeing, at least for me, isn’t about happiness, or clarity, or contentment. It’s about co-existing: with the good, the bad, the ugly. It’s about living despite these things. Living anyway.

Some time ago, I wrote a post about how my feelings had changed, over the years, with regards to writing a journal. At the time I wrote that post, I couldn’t seem to overcome the disgust I had come to feel at the thought of returning to writing in my journal regularly, as I had when I was younger. I felt unable to bear the repetitiveness of my thoughts, spelled out on paper. I understood that journal writing had at one point served a purpose for me — the purpose of venting, and also, sometimes, of clarifying my thoughts — but that it no longer served that purpose. Or rather, that that purpose no longer served me.

This year, I contemplated trying yet again to return to a daily meditation practice. But instead, at the last moment, I decided to take the principles of meditation — that is, bearing witness to my thoughts and feelings and then letting them go — and to apply them to writing in my journal. At the time, I wasn’t sure why this decision, which felt so spontaneous, also felt so right; but I see now, a couple of months down the track, why it did. Writing in my journal each day, I’m starting to see how my thoughts and feelings and mood ebb and flow. It’s not all about despair, after all. Sometimes I write with sadness; sometimes I write with joy. Sometimes I write with boredom. Sometimes I write about myself and my inner world; sometimes I write about the things I’ve seen as I’ve gone about my day — that is, my external world.

And what I write about doesn’t puzzle me or bother me anymore. Writing so frequently, so — sometimes — inanely, I’ve learnt not to impose judgement on anything I write. I just write it, and let it go. That, to me, is, as I’d hoped, exactly what meditating is about (just without all the candles and mantras and breathing exercises).

But there are other things I like about writing (almost) daily in my journal, too, things I hadn’t anticipated. One is, I feel as though I’m not losing my life anymore. In years to come, I’ll be able to look back at these pages, as I look back now at the pages that I wrote in my twenties, and remember the woman I was. I’ll be able to remember the life I lived, the things that happened, the people I loved and lost. To me, that feels like a good thing. I’ve always wanted to live a life rich with memories, even if those memories are incredibly trivial and insignificant. Writing in my journal again is making that possible.

And finally, it’s a writing practice, too. The more I write, whatever kind of writing that is — journal writing, or blog writing, or fiction writing, or essay writing — the more I learn how to say what I want to say, and what it is, exactly, that I want to say. Journal writing, random and undisciplined as it is, is part of that process.

In the end, if nothing else, it’s another way to learn.

My 12-year-old labrador is clearly a Buddhist in training

Lately I’ve been reading about …

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

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.