Milestone

Other people’s words about … why they run

You know, I have run all my life. From fights and bars and women and any number of tricky situations. I run to think and I run to not think. I ran even when I was drinking. Often, I would leave bars and run into the night, just keep going until the exhaustion or sheer drunkenness stopped me. I don’t run in groups or on teams, I don’t run in events or with friends. I don’t run for charity. I don’t run for fitness — I ran even when I was fat or when I smoked. I run for the same thing I have always run for. The solitude and the independence of spirit. The feeling of freedom. When I was in my early teens I read Alan Silitoe’s short story ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ and had my psyche explained to me.

From ‘Riding the Elephant’
by Craig Ferguson

I haven’t been able to run for several months now, due to a niggling ankle/tendon injury that I’m still trying to work out how to fix. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), when I came across Craig Ferguson’s words about running recently, which I’ve quoted above, they struck such a chord within me that I couldn’t let them go.

Reflective

I turned fifty this past weekend. Like most people I know who have turned fifty ahead of me, the milestone left me feeling even more introspective and reflective and wistful (or maudlin? self-absorbed?) than I usually do.

And the niggling ankle injury certainly didn’t help.

Fading beauty

So here is a metaphor for you: today, I went for a ride on my bike through the vineyards and past the scrub. I stopped to take the photograph below, because it was such a lovely, sun-dappled, shady spot, and because I already had the caption for the photograph planned. It was: ‘Who knows what lies around the next turn?’ This seemed apt, since the road I was cycling along made a literal turn, and since, at fifty, I’m also at a metaphorical turning point.

But then, after I’d taken the photograph and got back on my bike, I actually did cycle around the turn … and got repeatedly swooped by a magpie all the rest of the way down the road.

There’s a lesson in that somewhere, if you’re fifty and feeling maudlin and introspective, right?

Round the bend

But back to Craig Ferguson and the point of this post. I run for the same thing I have always run for, he writes. The solitude and the independence of spirit. The feeling of freedom.

And (oh my goodness, yes): I run to think and I run to not think.

These are the reasons I run, too, and the reasons I hope I’ll run again, one day. Is that a vain hope? Perhaps. But the fifty-year-old in me has learned that hope is worth clinging to, because, against all logic, hope keeps you real. It keeps you true.

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

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 …

Bright lights

Other people’s words about … living small

His approach, enjoying small spots of nature every day rather than epic versions of wilderness and escape, made sense to me. Big trips were the glaciers, cruise ships to Madagascar, the Verdon Gorge, the Cliffs of Moher, walking on the moon. Small trips were city parks with abraded grass, the occasional foray to the lake-woods of Ontario, a dirt pile. Smallness did not dismay me. Big nature travel — with its extreme odysseys and summit-fixated explorers — just seemed so, well, grandiose.The drive to go bigger and further just one more instance of the overreaching at the heart of Western culture.

I like smallness. I like the perverse audacity of someone aiming tiny.

From ‘Birds Art Life Death’
by Kyo Maclear

This week marks a new phase in the COVID-19 pandemic, as the world begins to open up again, economically. Here in South Australia, several restrictions will be lifted from 11 May. Cafes will reopen for outdoor eating; travel within the state (to holiday houses and campgrounds) will be encouraged; libraries will open their doors to patrons; swimming pools and community halls will be available for public use once more. All of these reopenings are accompanied by regulations that we could never have imagined prior to the pandemic, most of which are to do with the amount of people gathering in any one spot, and the distance they must keep between each other. But still, even with those rules in place for the foreseeable future, it’s clear that the lockdown is easing slowly.

And I am glad — glad that so few people are ill and dying here now in South Australia; glad that people whose livelihoods have been threatened by the closures of their businesses can now have a chance to make a living again; glad that people who have felt isolated and lonely during lockdown can go out into the world again and reconnect.

But also, I find myself feeling a little sad as the quiet time comes to an end.

Cafe life during the pandemic: the not-so-bright lights

Because, like Kyo Maclear, I, too, on the whole, like smallness. I don’t mean that I like illness or poverty or death — of course not. I don’t mean, either, that I can’t see how incredibly fortunate I’ve been (so far) during this pandemic, given that my health, and the health of all the people I love, remains intact. Given that I still have a job and an income.

But still, for the longest time — for as long as I can remember, in fact — I have felt out of tune with what Maclear calls the overreaching at the heart of Western culture. Over and over in my life, I have sought smallness over largeness; quietness over noise; scarcity over plenitude; closeness over distance; solitude over the throng. Often, this pursuit has felt less like a choice to me than a compulsion or a duty. Often, it has felt very lonely.

During the lockdown, though, as life has shrunk and quietened, as the crowds have thinned and ebbed away, I have seen my instincts and compulsions aligning themselves with the changing world around me. And in this quieter, smaller world, I have felt something inside of me loosen and release. I have felt, for once, at peace.

Through a window: looking up and out to the light

In the society I live in, a Western society like Maclear’s, we are encouraged to spend big, to think big. To live big. In tandem, we are encouraged to ignore the damage that results from doing so — the damage to the environment we live in, and the damage to the quiet places within ourselves, to the truths we feel in the smallness of our own hearts.

Coronavirus has affected the world on a global scale: its effects have been enormous, and they will be long-lasting. And yet, how perverse would it be, to borrow a word from Maclear, if what we take away from this catastrophe is a desire to live smaller, to aim tiny? How audacious? How — dare I say it — wonderful?

Deserted beach: this beautiful light

Lately I’ve been reading …

Loveliness

Other people’s words about … a changing world

When I first arrived [in Rome] I cried almost every day for a month. Over nothing; over the state of the world; the news I saw on television; over the loveliness of the autumn sunshine on soft old stone. Great, wrenching sobs that came and went in moments and left me dazed.

From ‘In My Skin’
by Kate Holden

I’m writing this post on the day before Easter, 9 April 2020, a day in which, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the number of people who have contracted the coronavirus globally has reached 1,504,971. Of those, 87,984 people have died, and 318,068 people have recovered. Meanwhile, here in Australia, where the virus has barely (yet) made a dent, we are being encouraged to stay at home for the Easter break, instead of going away as so many of us usually do.

Stay home, we are being told. Stay well. Stop the spread.

Lunchtime view: On the pontoon (1)

It’s impossible to say how many Australians will obey these directives. Impossible to say, if we don’t, how many cases of coronavirus there will be here in two weeks’ time. Impossible to say, therefore, what the world, our world, will look like in two weeks’ time.

And what of the aftermath? When this crisis is over — when the COVID-19 pandemic has run its course, as we are being told it will — what will our world look like then? Will our lives simply resume where they left off? Or will the way we live, the world we walk through, be changed forever?

Impossible to say.

*

In her memoir In My Skin, Kate Holden tells the story of her addiction to heroin: how she became addicted, what it was like, how she moved on. For her, the process of getting clean involved as much loss and grief as it did relief and joy: the world around her seemed strange, and new, and exhausting.

All I did, in the daytime, was walk. On the move until I was too baffled by weariness to feel anything, I wandered, almost every day, through the soft ochre streets, the narrow old spaces, learning the city, studying it. I made myself a scholar again, and sat in the cold sunshine of a city that had withstood destruction and rebirth many times, and let myself be suffused with dreaming. I walked in different weathers and times of day, learning about change and constancy. In quietness, I walked Rome. Sometimes I worked up the courage to venture further.

It’s autumn here in Australia, and the days are filled with the kind of still, gentle, lovely sunshine that Holden describes in the first of the passages I’ve quoted above. Because of COVID-19, I can’t fly to Rome, as she did in the aftermath of her heroin addiction, to wander the old streets and learn the world anew. Nor can you.

But: I made myself a scholar again, Holden writes; and this, I think, is something all of us can do right now, wherever we are in the world. We can watch and walk and study and learn.

Lunchtime view: On the pontoon (2)

The world is changing, and so, inevitably, will we. One day, when this is over, we will venture further again, whatever venturing may mean, whatever further may mean.

In the quietness of this strange, new, exhausting world, here, at least, is something we can do.

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.

On wonder, and grief

Other people’s words about … this amazing world

Look at the sky. (It’s amazing. It’s always amazing.)

From ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’
by Matt Haig

I’ve found myself at a loss for words to write in here recently. The loss of words carries over to images, too, and therefore to other media like my Instagram account — I haven’t taken a photograph for weeks. I haven’t even been able to pick up a pen and write in my own diary.

I am, in general, someone who is readily able to immerse myself in the wonder of the natural world. The photographs I take and post, here and on Instagram, of the scrub and the sea and the sky and the sand and the sunset, are the physical manifestation of this. The habit of wondering is one I taught myself, years ago, as a way to manage the bouts of anxiety and sadness I’ve always experienced. Call it mindfulness, call it relaxation therapy, call it diversion, call it meditation, it’s what I do: it’s how I move through the world. It’s how I stay present, how I stay humble.

But since the end of last year, ever since the fires began raging here, I haven’t been able to respond that way to the world around me: to access that wonder. In fact, wonder feels frivolous — insensitive, tasteless — when the world around you, the living world, is burning, burning.

Here in South Australia, in the last couple of weeks, we’ve had milder weather, and even some rainfall. As a result, the fires, for now, are largely under control, though when the heat returns — as it will — so, I think, may the fires.

But in the wake of those fires, the land in those areas has burned to nothingness. The trees and the animals have been killed. There is nothing left. There is nothing to wonder at.

What I feel now, instead of wonder, is rage and grief. These fires should not have happened. For thousands of years, before 1788, the people who lived here managed the land, and they managed fire. They co-existed with the natural world. In the last two hundred years, we have lost that ability, and with it we are losing the land.

There are books you can read about this, if you want to know more — books that were written well before this year’s fires, books that studied the past and made warnings about the future. I would recommend, in particular, Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (about which, you can read more here).

There are also things you can do, right now — organisations to which you can donate your money, or your time, or your talent. If you are an Australian, there are choices you can make today, as you go about your daily life, about how you spend any disposable income you might have — for example, where you buy your food, where you go on holiday — so that your money goes towards local communities affected by the fires (for example, #bookthemout and Empty Esky). I hope that, though movements such as these are aimed at helping the people affected by the fires, they will also, as a natural consequence, help the other living beings affected by the fires. By contributing to these areas, you contribute to all the lives within those areas.

I would add: do these things now. Please. But also, do them forever.

Bushfire prevention is a long-term strategy. It’s a lifestyle choice, and it’s a political choice. If we are to change the course of the future in Australia, if we are to change the way we live in our environment, if we are to learn to co-exist in this Australian environment, then we have to change things forever.

Until we manage to do this, I, like many other Australians, will continue to feel rage and grief instead of wonder.

Metronome

Other people’s words about … feeling wrong

I walked out of the class then, back into the hallway, thinking that this was another thing I didn’t understand: how you can work so hard on a report, you can even earn an A, but you still walk away feeling like you’ve done something wrong.

Like you, yourself, are terribly wrong.

From ‘The Thing about Jellyfish’
by Ali Benjamin

I mentioned in previous posts that I’ve been tired recently, too tired to run very far. And honestly? I still feel that way. I’m still tired, and though, having had a couple of weeks off running altogether when I was sick with a cold, I’ve come back to it, I’m still lacking energy and verve, still lacking that feeling of rightness that I usually associate with running.

At the moment, in fact, I’m running more because I remember the sense of rightness and joy that running gives me than because I actually feel it in the present.

View on the run (1)
Pathway to the horizon

In a funny way, the quote in today’s post encapsulates not only the way I’ve felt all my life — the feeling that I’m wrong; that I get things wrong; that I’ll never, ever get them right — but also the particular feeling that I have right now, when I’m out on the path, running (and stopping, mid-run, to take photographs like the ones in today’s post). The truth is, I feel wrong, right now, when I run. But I keep running, anyway.

View on the run (2)
Three little ducks

Meanwhile, I’ve been getting back to reading novels for younger people again over the last few months, these months of tiredness, after a long time away from them — novels written for young adults, for middle-grade readers, for kids. And I’ve loved every minute of my reading. I’ve been reminded, reading these books, of all the things I used to love about them: the poignancy of the voices of protagonists like thirteen-year-old Suzy in The Thing about Jellyfish, the freshness, the truth. Her words ring true across the generations, at least for me.

I’d turned away from reading books for younger people over the last few years, because I thought that I couldn’t write for that audience anymore, and because I thought I was the wrong reader, the wrong writer.

View on the run (3)
Baby almonds

But maybe that’s the thing: maybe, sometimes, you have to do things, anyway, regardless of how wrong you feel doing it. Maybe the rightness comes from doing it anyway — despite, or because.

View on the run (4)
Two’s company

So I’m out there running these days, both despite and because. And whether the joy is there, whether the feeling of rightness is there, I’ll keep running like this until something stops me, or until the joy and the rightness return.

Because there’s a rhythm to these things, I think: a rhythm to the pounding of my feet on the footpath, a metronome ticking away, the same way that life ticks away.

And that rhythm, that ticking, is the only true, right thing I know.

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.