Unlovely

Other people’s words about … the view from the kitchen window

The kitchen window [of the railroad flat] looked into the gray courtyard where, on better days, there would be lines of clothes baking in the sun, although the floor of the deep courtyard, even in the prettiest weather, was a junkyard and a jungle. There were rats and bedsprings and broken crates. A tangle of city-bred vegetation: a sickly tree, black vines, a long-abandoned attempt at a garden.

From ‘The Ninth Hour’
by Alice McDermott

The world can seem very unlovely sometimes, can’t it? Sometimes the unloveliness is of the kind described in the passage above, which comes from poverty and dereliction and is visible from your kitchen window. And sometimes it comes from a more spiritual kind of unloveliness: a human lack of grace.

Shafts of sunlight in the scrub

There are times when I fret and rail at the unloveliness, times when it is all I can see. And there are other times — for the space of a breath, or a second, or a minute, or an hour — when I am overwhelmed by the loveliness that surrounds me, both within people and without.

Oystercatchers on the reef

I had a week of annual leave from work last week, which I spent at our falling-down house in Aldinga. The weather was dank and damp and (yes) somewhat unlovely, and, at least partly in response, my mood veered up and down erratically.

Autumn in the vineyards

But then, over the week, because I’m on a pause in my running at the moment, I found myself seeking out my bike again, taking myself for long, hypnotic rides along the coast and through the hills and paddocks and vineyards. And all around me, amidst the dampness and dankness, there were moments of loveliness, some of which you can see pictured in today’s post.

Rainclouds over the hills

Sometimes, I think, you just have to take moments of loveliness like this and carry them with you, through the unloveliness. Sometimes it’s all you can do.

Lately I’ve been reading …

The life ahead of you

Other people’s words about … distance

They raised their glasses. The room smelt of wine and bread and gravy, and the light was rich and dim.

Geraint didn’t answer.

‘I thought a change of scene … ‘ said Basil. ‘A long voyage on an ocean liner [to India]. Full of hopeful beautiful women,’ he added, daring.

Geraint read Kipling. He thought of the mystery of India, the jungle, the light, the colours, the creatures. The complexities of the silver dealings. The distance. He was, he saw, in need of distance. And his imagination touched on the beautiful young women sailing across dark starlit oceans in search of husbands. A journey like that made you free, made you a different man.

From ‘The Children’s Book’
by AS Byatt

Just a few weeks ago, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world we’re living in now would have seemed like something straight out of the pages of a science fiction novel. But then life changed — abruptly, shockingly — and here we are now, living out our strange, new lives. Trying to make sense of our days.

Having no words, myself, for any of this, I have spent my Easter seeking solace in other people’s words. There is no better novel I can think of that describes the kind of vast, sudden change we are experiencing right now than The Children’s Book. In it, AS Byatt chronicles the lives of the members of a family living in Edwardian England as they move, unknowingly, towards 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War … and the end of the world as they knew it.

‘I should like that, sir,’ [Geraint] said. ‘You have been very kind to me.’

Basil said, ‘It was a fortunate day for me when you came into the Bank. You are too young to be fixed by one setback. You have all your life in front of you. The world in front of you.’

Geraint set his [broken heart] against the pull of the oceans and the strange continent. He could feel his own energy stirring.

‘I know,’ he said. ‘You are right. Thank you.’

To say anything more about how Geraint’s life changes shortly after this conversation, or about how wrong Basil’s pronouncements turn out to be, would be to give away the whole, shocking point of this novel. All I will say is this: sometimes we are wrong about the world we live in, and about the lives that we believe lie ahead of us.

Sometimes, as Byatt describes, we are terribly, terribly wrong.

*

At the end of this post, I’ve listed a few of the pieces I’ve read online recently, during this strange, uneasy Easter weekend. I’ve listed them here in case you, like me, find yourself speechless right now: in case you, like me, find yourself seeking solace in other people’s words.

But there’s one other thing I want to leave you with today. This morning, I wandered into our garden — our small, messy, rambling suburban garden, which is more of a yard with some trees we planted in it, really, than a garden — and glanced up through the leaves at the sky. And there, above me, was the sun shining through, distant but warm.

I captured that moment in the photo that accompanies this post. It shows another kind of distance from the one Geraint believes he is entitled to reach out towards. It shows, I want to say, another kind of solace.

The light shining through

Lately I’ve been reading …

That place

Other people’s words about … slowing down

He opened the window and let in the ocean, gulped in that grey air as though oxygen was enough to save him from the people in the house, watched the waves, noted the dark rip forming at the southern end of the beach. He ignored the sound of Charlie’s voice in the lounge, hilarious, oblivious, the sounds of the girl in the bathroom behind him, scrubbing insistently; called to mind the tentacles of the cloud from earlier, saw the colours he’d mix [if he were to paint it], the strokes, the shapes. After a few moments, his breathing slowed and he began to enter the place where no one else could come.

From‘Bluebottle‘
By Belinda Castles

It’s hard to know what to say, let alone what to write about, in times like this. Surely I am not alone in beginning to think of 2020 as the year of disasters — first, here in Australia, the bushfires; then, globally, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Low ebb

About the coronavirus, I have nothing useful to say. It is only just beginning to hit here in Australia, and — despite the chance that Australians had, over the last few weeks, to learn from people’s experiences of it in the northern hemisphere — it appears that we have done very little to protect ourselves. Though we are not yet in lockdown, I suspect we will be soon.

Birds of a feather

Before the coronavirus situation began to escalate here, I was lucky enough to have the chance to slip away for a few days to Kangaroo Island. The photos in this post are from those few days.

Half of the island — yes, half — was destroyed by the bushfires earlier this year. Even without the pandemic, it is a time of great sadness on the Island.

Exposed

But I have nothing to say about that sadness, either. Instead, my photographs here celebrate, I hope, the beauty of the unburned half of the Island. In times of sadness, we have to find things to celebrate, yes?

Enter that place

Also, to borrow Belinda Castles’s words from the quote above and to use them in a different context, we have to slow down, despite our panic; we have to breathe in fresh air. We have to turn inward, finding and enter[ing] that place where no one else [can] come.

In the end, we have to find a way, within ourselves, to survive.

Chasing clouds

Other people’s words about … running

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

After I wrote my last post here, in which I mentioned that I’d been too tired to run very much recently, I caught a cold and stopped running altogether for almost three weeks. It was probably the longest period I’ve gone without running since I took the habit up again, back in 2015, at the age of forty-five.

This past Thursday, I went for my first run since catching that cold, feeling fragile and wobbly and exhausted. I was so tired that I ran half the distance that I usually run, and I stopped at the midway point — partly to rest, partly just to soak up the wonder of being out under the sky again, with my feet thudding against the ground.

I sat on a rock looking out over the sailboats anchored in the cove, and I thanked whatever grace it is that allows me to continue to run. There are so many people who would like to run but can’t, whether because of disability or illness, injury or lack of opportunity. I remembered that I am one of the lucky ones: that it is my great good fortune and privilege to be able to run, however slow my pace, however short my distance.

I took the photographs in today’s post as I was sitting on those rocks, midway through that run. It was a short, tiring, exhausting, feeble run, and it left me feeling both humbled and blessed.

And that is what I love most about this privileged pursuit of mine: the gratitude it feels me with. The joy that it brings.

Savour it

Other people’s words about … moments of beauty

Her head nested in spindly weeds [as she lay down in the grass]; the sky glowed preternaturally blue through the slats. As her breathing slowed, she noted a bee crawling along a blade of grass above her head. She counted its stripes, amazed to see them juxtaposed with the stripes of sky. The bee’s were a warning, the sky’s a promise she could not yet fathom, and for a moment everything seemed connected, aching beauty and imminent danger, the fragility of the bee and the scalded roof of her mouth, the transcendent savour of [the stolen loaf of freshly baked] bread and the fact that she was literally lying in a ditch.

From ‘Tess of the Road’
by Rachel Hartman

I love this passage, in which the protagonist of Rachel Hartman’s novel, Tess, feels utterly present in a single moment of her life: feels herself watching the moment as it unfolds. Tess’s experience of this moment, her sense of being present in it, is what a meditation teacher might call an experience of mindfulness. And yet the description is beautiful rather than didactic, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Stripes in the sky (1)

Hartman’s words are, I think, a description of the practice of mindfulness at its best. Mindfulness, to me, is not about mantras or breathing or (heaven forbid!) colouring-in books. Instead, and far more simply, it is about slowing down, about looking around, about noticing the world around you. It is, most of all, about seeing.

Because the practice of mindfulness — this kind of mindfulness, anyway, which to me is the only kind that makes any practical or spiritual sense at all — is about stepping outside, into the living, breathing world, the one that exists beyond walls and ceilings and computers and cars. It’s about looking and seeing. And about being grateful for what you see.

Stripes in the sky (2)

This year has been a strange, uneasy year for me: a year of trying to make a living from freelancing, and then trying to readjust to a salaried living, working regular hours, meeting KPIs and targets. I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned throughout the year, and grateful most of all that I was able to seek out other opportunities when freelancing alone wasn’t enough to sustain me.

Still, at times this year, when things got hard, I felt myself becoming frighteningly disconnected from the things that usually matter most to me: those still, small moments like the one Hartman describes, those moments when you stop and breathe the world in, exactly as it. Call it fear that stole those moments away from me; call it loss; call it depression; call it change. Whatever it was, it shocked me. I felt that I had stepped away from the world, and I didn’t know how to step back in.

And yet here I am now, months down the track, and I’m still here, still breathing. I’m stepping back in.

Take note

Other people’s words about … gratitude

I am so glad to still be here. Every day, I do my best to see the colours. I take note. I breathe them in.

From ‘How it Feels to Float’
by Helena Fox

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, I know. I want you all to know that I have been thinking of you, and I have been thinking of posting. There just hasn’t been room inside my head to get to it.

The first groundsel flowers of the season
(Spring is coming)

But when I read Helena Fox’s words in the Acknowledgments section at the back of her wonderful novel for young adults, How it Feels to Float, I wanted to pass them on. Because no matter how crammed my head — my brain, my mind — feels at the moment, I, too, do my best to see the colours, to breathe them in.

Blue winter sky

The photographs in today’s post come from a walk I took in the scrub a few weeks back. I hadn’t wandered through the scrub for a while, and I haven’t made it back since, but those moments were precious. I am still breathing them in.

Last rays

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 …

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.

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.

Tipping point

Otherwise

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

by Jane Kenyon

I have never known whether this poem, which I love, is about gratitude or fear, joy or sorrow. Is Kenyon, who experienced terrible bouts of depression throughout her life, describing her gratitude for, and joy in, the small moments of beauty and happiness she has experienced on the day she describes in her poem — the peach, the walk with her dog, the work she loves, the time with her mate?

Or is she describing her fear of losing these moments — of tipping away from happiness, back down into sorrow and depression?

A small thing, this, of beauty.
It might have been otherwise.

It’s a see-saw, this poem, I think. The poet hangs in a kind of precarious balance between one life and the other, without knowing when the hinge will tip her down again, away from the things she loves. It might have been otherwise, she writes at the start, and then, later, sadder and more afraid: it will be otherwise (my emphasis).

Gratitude. Joy. Fear. Sorrow. Grief. Yearning. They’re all there in this one, short poem.