If only I’d known

Other people’s words about … what’s important (or not)

I found a studio where I could practise a particular kind of semi-cultish yoga; I sweated on my purple mat for ninety minutes to pounding trance beats, drank smoothies in the vegan cafe, relished the feeling of freezing sweat on my cheeks when I threw my coat on over my leggings and walked in the snow to the Q train.

Maybe this will be the year I’ll learn to stand on my head, I thought, maybe a headstand is the thing I will accomplish in 2014. I thought about it a lot, like a headstand was a thing that was important.

From ‘This Really isn’t About You’
by Jean Hannah Edelstein

If only I’d known. That’s the feeling Jean Hannah Edelstein is describing in the passage above. In her case, these words applied to a period in her life when she didn’t yet know that she had Lynch syndrome, a hereditary condition that predisposes her to developing cancer later in her life.

If only. If only. Who hasn’t said that to themselves, at some point in their lives? If only I’d known, I’d have focused on other things. If only I’d known, I’d have made different plans. I’d have done more; I’d have said more; I’d have tried more. I’d have been more.

Don’t tell me you haven’t ever thought that.

*

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks over here in my nook of the world, as I continue to try to find my way in the freelance world. I don’t know whether I’ll manage to make a living from freelance editing, in the end. But on tough days, uncertain days, I remind myself that at least I’ll always know that I tried.

Which makes for one less if only in my life.

Grey skies

And meanwhile, in my spare time, I’ve gone wandering beneath grey skies, and blue skies, and cloudy skies, and clear skies. Because there’s no hint of an if only whenever I’m out wandering.

Blue(-ish) skies

Lately I’ve been reading about …

The stories we tell

Lately I’ve been reading about … river red gums

I didn’t just notice the river red gums, but also the cracked mud of receding water, rotting gum leaves, greater eastern egrets, kingfisher, heron, ibis, ducks, emus, kangaroos, wild horses, wasps and flies. I even saw (threatened) Murray cod foraging in the shallow water along the lake’s bank, and quickly learnt to look for them at the centre of the ripples of golden tannin their fins sent out. It was the first time I’d seen them surface, amphibian-like, in this manner. The effect was prehistoric. A single galah feather caught in a spider web stretched, strong as rope, between two river gums, waved gently in the corner of my vision.

From ‘Biyala Stories
by Sophie Cunningham

Each month this year, I’m taking a walk through the Aldinga Scrub — the same walk each time, along the Coral Lichen Circuit, which follows a gentle, undulating loop through the Scrub, with spots that overlook both the coast (to the west) and the hills (to the east) — to watch the seasons ring their changes on the landscape. I’ve walked the Scrub so often, taken pictures of the trees and the flowers, listened to the birdsong and the sound of the waves in the distance, to the wind moving through the trees. But I want to know the Scrub better, to know it intimately, to witness it. I want to know its intricacies — the kinds of intricacies that Sophie Cunningham describes so beautifully in the passage I’ve quoted above.

Cunningham’s essay is about the river red gums that grow in the part of the world where she lives: Melbourne (mostly), Victoria. It’s a thoughtful, erudite, poetic essay, at least in part about the stories these trees can tell us, the stories they might add to our own (human) narrative if we were able to listen. (You can read it here.) It came to me, as I read her essay, that I don’t know the stories of the trees in my own part of the world, this part of the world I’ve said so often and so glibly that I love.


Aldinga Scrub: January.
SA blue gums.

The trees of the Aldinga Scrub, like the river red gums in Cunningham’s essay, are struggling to survive. So are the plants of the Scrub, the birds and the animals. Their survival is threatened by many things, including encroaching housing developments; farming practices that have, since World War II, diverted the natural water flow away from the Scrub to nearby crops; pollution; climate change; islandisation; the spread of weeds from people’s carefully curated gardens and lawns.

I’m neither a scientist nor an ecologist; I can’t use any particular knowledge or training to save the trees or the plants or the birds on a large scale. But I can keep witnessing the Scrub: wandering through it, posting pictures of it here on my blog and my Instagram feed, sharing, in the process, the things I see and learn, the passage of the seasons, the stories I discover.

I can ensure those stories don’t go untold. That, at least, is a start.


Aldinga Scrub: February.
Above: Old man’s beard and bent tree trunk.
Below: Bracken fern, dying off in the summer heat, and grass tree spear.


Note:
For anyone who’s curious, Cunningham mentions in her essay that she has an Instagram account in which she posts a daily picture of a tree. I thought this was a splendid idea, so I searched for her account and found it here.

This is my work

Other people’s words about … the sea

Vale, Mary Oliver. I’m not a fan of all of her work — not by a long shot — but I do love the way she observed and wrote about nature: intimately, intricately, affectionately, quietly, humbly.

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

I Go Down to the Shore
by Mary Oliver

That lovely voice

The sea, breathing

Other people’s words about … the sea at night

I take many photos of the sea during daylight hours, but my photography skills aren’t good enough to capture the sea at night. Some nights, though, when the wind is westerly, blowing from the ocean onto the land, I can hear the waves, through the open windows of my house, as they roll into the beach and fall back, roll in and fall back.

It’s a dreamy, dreamy sound.

The night garden was thick with dreams. Beneath the earth, beneath the eyelids of birds, in the air that came like an exhalation from the sea. Pearl listened. It always felt closer at night, the slump and hiss of waves like an old man dreaming.

From ‘Shell
by Kristina Olsson

The slump and hiss of waves

.

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 …

Fleeting

Other people’s words about … happiness

Happiness doesn’t come in the way I expected; not a massing of good things over time, but a succession of small, strange and unowned moments — the sun makes a hot oblong on the bedroom floor and I stand in it with my eyes closed. The coriander germinates in the window box and up comes the seedling. The bled radiators stop knocking at night.

From ‘Dear Thief
by Samantha Harvey

I thought it was apt to write a post on happiness today, to accompany my previous post on sadness — though perhaps both posts are, after all, about the same thing, simply taken from opposing perspectives.

But also it seemed apt to me to write a post about happiness because today’s post, I think, will be my last post, at least on this blog, twenty-one words.

Over the years, I’ve written about many things on this blog — the sea, the sky, vomiting, writing, books, therapy, running, walking, travel, birds, flowers, hope, to name a few. But in many ways, I see, looking back, that I’ve been exploring, post by post, what it means to live a small life in the happiest, or at least the most meaningful and most humble, way I know.

Happiness, as Harvey says, isn’t something you can accumulate or amass; it most surely isn’t something you can own. It flits into our lives and out again. Writing this blog has been, for me, both a meaningful and a humbling experience — and in that sense it has been a happy experience for me, too. I don’t know if my posts have brought you, my readers, any moments of happiness, but I hope so: I do.

I spent over half my life waiting for the accumulation of happiness and then I realised that it doesn’t accumulate at all, it just occurs here and there, like snow that falls and never settles. Not the drifts that you and I imagined we would plough ourselves into, but instead gently, opportunistically, holding one’s tongue out to catch the flakes.

I’m not sure yet whether I’ll leave this blog up for posterity (i.e. for a little while!) or whether I’ll take it down altogether, or whether, perhaps, I’ll change its privacy settings so that you can only access it by contacting me first. (Please feel free to do that, if it’s what I do.)

In the meantime, I’ll go on running and walking and hoping and reading and looking, looking, looking.

I’m still on Instagram and post there regularly — mostly photos of the beach and of nature (no selfies, I promise!). Please feel free to hop on over and join me there if you’d like.

Fleeting

Thank you to everyone who’s read this blog. Take care of yourselves. Keep reading and looking. Keep savouring those fleeting moments of happiness, whenever they come your way.

Observation

Other people’s words about … sadness

Why was she so sad? The unspoken question had dangled over the [therapist’s] beige couch and the framed degrees and the economy of Kleenex. He commanded a cache of Ohs and I sees in varying grades of volume and texture, knew when to prod and when to sink with her. Why was she so sad?

Ada was sad because she was sad because she was sad. She experienced extreme difficulty in reaching past the tautological.

From ‘Infinite Home
by Kathleen Alcott

Some time ago, for much the same reason as Ada in the passage above, I quit therapy. I had come to my therapist feeling sad; but years of therapy later, I still felt sad. It seemed to me at last that, whether my sadness was unique or universal or — like Ada’s — purely tautological, the time for exploring it was over.

In the years that have passed since then, I’ve learned that I feel better when I try to make peace with sadness than I do when I try to overcome it. There is much to be said for acceptance and for patience. And for seeing things through.

I took the pictures in today’s post on a day when I had just heard that I will be losing my job at the end of this year. I felt, that day, as though I had been cheated of something — of an income, yes, but also of something less tangible, some essential part of me that I couldn’t actually name. I felt anxious and old and vulnerable and as though I had failed. Most of all, I just felt sad.

What I saw

I couldn’t sit still with my sadness that day; I couldn’t see it through. So I did the only thing that seemed manageable to me in the moment: I took myself off for a run by the beach. I ran what seemed to me a long way, the furthest I’d ever run, in fact — although the distance didn’t matter, really. What mattered was that I was outside: moving, breathing deeply, looking around. Seeing. Sadness, I’ve found, stops me from seeing. But stepping outside returns my vision to me, at least for a while.

Losing a job — especially a job that you love, especially when you are nearing fifty — entails a specific kind of sadness, one that is wrapped up in grief and fear. Still, I’m curious. What do you do when you are sad?