Chasing clouds

‘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

We recently spent a week in the caravan staying in our favourite spot, perched on the clifftops at Yorke Peninsula. It was mid-Autumn, and the weather, like the view, changed every day, sometimes every minute.

During one of the sunnier hours, I went for a run in the bushland that lies behind the dunes and cliffs. I took off my running shoes and ran barefoot along the winding sandy track that rises and dips through the scrubland. Despite the lack of rain in the previous months, the bushland here seemed to me quite lush (at least by South Australian standards).

I finished my run at the base of the highest dune, and then I trundled up to the top of the dune to look down on the beach and shoreline below.

It was a moment of silver seas and blue skies — a moment worth celebrating.

Out and about: dragons & damsels

‘When you’re walking the view shifts and changes.
Walking’s a form of hope.’

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

I wasn’t expecting anything special on my most recent walk in the Scrub. It was mid-February, a warm Sunday at the end of a warm week, after a very warm January. I figured everything in the Scrub — bushes, birds, animals — would be going through what I always think of as mid-summer somnolence.

But things in the Scrub were thriving. Passing sea box bushes resplendent with red berries (above) and sheoak trees whose branches were clustered with woody fruit (below), I walked south, towards the little lagoon just behind the boundary fence that runs along Acacia Terrace.

Damselflies skimmed the (somewhat scummy) surface of the water, and a pair of ducks paddled amongst the reeds in the lagoon. As I followed the curve of the bank around to the other side of the pond, I saw a family of kangaroos lazing in the shade of the nearby bushes, one of them poised upright, ears pricked, standing sentry.

There was a bush in flower that I’d never seen before, too — I think it was a hakea, though I’m not entirely sure. Its white flowers reflected the bright summer sun so that the petals seemed to glow.

And just outside the Scrub, perched on an upright stump by the side of the road, a little dragon caught my eye.

He (or she, I’m not sure) was very still, so still that I thought at first he was an oddly shaped twig sticking out at the top of the stump. We regarded each other silently for quite some time — I, fascinated, he, less so — before I turned to go.

I swear I could feel that dragon’s eyes on me all the way home …

Reflections

Other people’s words about … landscape

Paul had read somewhere that a landscape itself has no meaning. That it was more a mirror and anything you saw in it or felt were your own thoughts or feelings being reflected back at you.

From ‘The Windy Season
by Sam Carmody

I’ve heard it said that a person’s eyes are like mirrors to the soul, but I’ve honestly not heard landscape described before in this way. And yet it makes instant sense to me.

I’ve written before about how, when I first moved to the area of Aldinga Beach, what I saw, all I saw, was the coast. That’s partly because the line of coast is stunning around the Aldinga and Port Willunga area, with its rugged, crumbling limestone cliffs and wide white sands and deep blue seas. It’s partly also because my partner is a surfer and so our life together has been, right from the start, about the sea rather than the bush.

But partly, I think — mostly, in fact — it’s because I didn’t know what else to look for, back then. I came to Aldinga with my own particular thoughts and feelings and expectations, and what I expected to see was reflected right back at me.

The first time I strayed from the beach to wander through Aldinga Scrub I did so more out of curiosity than anything else, knowing nothing more than that it was a small, much-squabbled-over, highly politicised piece of bushland close to home. Then, later, I turned to the Scrub again, seeking solace. I was trying to encourage myself to find an external landscape to wander through, rather than the internal landscape I seemed, neverendingly, to be pushing through.

And I found what I’d been seeking, although I had to teach myself at first.

Take grass trees, for example, which seemed to me at first ugly, prickly, alien things with strange spear-like growths protruding awkwardly from their crowns. Now I see how there are delicate white flowers clustered on those spears at certain time of the year; I hear how insects and skinks scuttle, hidden, protected, beneath their prickly leaves; and I notice how, at every turn of the sandy path in the Scrub, there is a grass tree in a different stage of growth, from the early clusters of stalky green grass to the grey thickets of rotting bark that mark decay and death.

Or take a midsummer day in the Scrub, like the recent one on which I took all the photos in today’s post: the kind of day when the only flowers in evidence are the last clusters of common everlasting, those scraggly, tough little flowers that look like ragged, paper-petalled daisies. In the high, midsummer sun, those petals are the brightest, purest white I’ve ever seen in the bush. I didn’t see that in the early days, either.

So, yes, the landscape of the Scrub I see now is different from the one I saw ten years ago, and in that sense, it is a mirror: it always has been.

Will you forgive me if I use the term ‘meaning-making’ here? I am neither an academic nor a scholar, and in any case, I am thinking of making meanings, in this context, in a psychological rather than a semiotic sense. For me, what I’ve just described above is a process of meaning-making that is both deliberate and joyful: it deepens my life.

And that is the kind of mirror I’ll always be happy to look into.

I see you

Other people’s words about … love

The bright lights had been switched off and the place was lit only by small windows. Then there she was — Stella — the top of her head highlighted as she looked down, reading. It never ceased to amaze him the thrill he got at seeing her. Catching her unawares.

From ‘Midwinter Break
by Bernard MacLaverty

Every time I read these words by Bernard MacLaverty, I feel my breath catch. That’s how it feels to see someone you love, isn’t it? That’s how those tiny, stolen glimpses feel.

The photo accompanying this post is one I took on my latest camping trip to Yorke Peninsula with my partner Wayne. It was very early summer, as you may remember: fan flower season. One evening just after sunset, as I wandered from the beach back to our campsite on the cliffs, I came to a fork in the path where there were fan flower bushes growing at every corner.

And there, in the dim glow of the early-evening sky, the petals of the fan flowers — which in the warm, bright light of the middle of the day are a strong, cheery blue — seemed to shine for a few moments: pale, spectral, luminescent.

Perhaps my talk of fan flowers seems an odd match for the words I began this post with. But this was another one of those tiny, stolen moments we’re given in life from time to time, and it seems to me a good way to honour Bernard MacLaverty’s lovely words …

PS One other thing: a quick shout-out to my mother, who celebrates her birthday today, and who is a person responsible for many lovely moments in my life .

This quiet unknowing

Other people’s words about … dreams

I am trying to find my dog, which is going to be put down. Not a dog I live with in my waking life, but another, a black Labrador. The dog has already been taken away and is awaiting its death at a pound on the edge of town. This awful knowledge permeates my sleep. When I get there, however, my dog has gone. In its place, lying sick and exhausted on the concrete floor inside a large cage, is a young, very beautiful red setter. As I enter, the creature raises its head towards me and I see with slow shock that its muzzle has been sewn up with fishing line. The red dog pulls itself off the ground and limps towards me. Rising on its hind legs, it puts its forelegs on my shoulders, and rests its head against the left side of my neck. I can sense it begging me to save it. I feel great pity; I embrace and try to comfort it. But there is no sense that I can or will do anything to help it. The burden would be too great. Words come into my head. The dog’s name: Gadget. (Why Gadget? I wonder, even in the dream.) Then the thought — with which I am already justifying my decision to abandon it — that red setters are not very intelligent dogs. I step away. The animal stands there, hopeless. I touch it on the back and I leave.

What to do with a dream like that?

From ‘Anaesthesia
by Kate Cole-Adams

What to do, indeed?

I love the words in this passage: this description of a dream, which is vivid and haunting and bewildering all at once, as dreams so often are. Over time, Cole-Adams goes on to say, various astute readers have suggested to me that this particular dream might not belong in this particular book, that it is a dream that emanates from somewhere else and that ought to be left there …. And yet she includes the dream in her book anyway. In doing so, she allows herself to write intuitively, blindly, instinctively, knowing — knowing — that what she is writing must be written, but not knowing why.

In the quiet after waking I lay curled on my side suffused with the knowledge of irrevocable loss. I had betrayed the red dog. And in doing so I understood that I had disavowed some helpless, voiceless part of me. The dream did not feel like a dream. The house was still and very dark. I did not know what the dog had been trying to say, but I could still feel almost physically the place above my left shoulder where it had nuzzled its head against my neck, and I accepted finally that I could not write this book without it.

Do you sometimes have dreams like Cole-Adams’s dream — a dream that [does] not feel like a dream? Do you feel memories rising in you that feel more alive than memories should ever feel? Do you get a feeling of sickness in your gut that you know — you just know — isn’t a sickness; and yet it is, it is?

I do.

These days, I’m not much one for grand resolutions. I don’t know what path I’ll follow this year (though, in a more concrete sense, I know I’ll walk the sandy path in Aldinga Scrub, pictured above, over and over). I don’t know what 2018 holds, for me or for you.

I do hope, though, that there will be some moments like Cole-Adams describes, for you and for me: those quiet moments after waking when you do not disavow the helpless, voiceless part of you; those moments when you accept finally that you cannot otherwise do what it is you need to do.

Tangled

Other people’s words about … writing a journal

She put the card carefully on her knee under the journal, which she opened at the middle to a sprawl of furious and barely legible writing. There were circles and boxes and in some places the pen had been pressed so hard against the paper that it had torn. Clare snapped the journal shut and for the second time in as many days she put her head in her hands and cried.

There wasn’t, she thought, a single page in all the [boxes of journals] that was worth keeping. For twenty-seven years she had written the same things over and over.

from ‘Closing Down’
by Sally Abbott

Like the character Clare in the passage above, I was an avid journal writer for many years — from the age of about twelve years old, in fact. I began writing a journal because my Year 7 English teacher made the activity a part of our curriculum for the year: she gave us ten minutes at the beginning of each class to write in our journals. She saw journal writing as a way of encouraging us to learn to write fluently, spell correctly, express ourselves clearly and perhaps — as a corollary of the writing — to read widely.

Like Clare, I still have all my old journals, stored away in a plastic crate in the house at Aldinga. Those old childhood ones are filled with pages of neat handwriting in blue fountain-pen ink, drawings, doodles, comic strips I cut out from the newspaper and pasted in, pictures from old magazines, stickers, and notes other people wrote to me (on the odd occasion when I allowed someone access to my journal). They are bright and colourful and their tone is, mostly, chatty and cheerful.

But the later journals, which were written during my move from childhood to adolescence through to early adulthood and beyond, are filled with more handwriting and less colour. The writing takes over. It fills the pages. There is page after page after page of it.

It was a grief counsellor who had recommended Clare start keeping a journal … It was a way of beginning to articulate her feelings, the woman had explained, and Clare remembered her sad, earnest face and the huge weight she gave to the word ‘feelings’, as if they were something Clare could take out of herself and put on a table and carefully untangle and separate and tidy up. And perhaps, for a little while, it had helped. But what had she been thinking … to write over and over and over that she was sad or angry or okay? I only wrote what I felt, she thought. I never wrote what I saw. I never wrote what I did. I never wrote that I’ve made it this far.

In my early adulthood, like Clare, I was encouraged by various health professionals to continue keeping a journal as a part of my therapy; indeed, I was told I could see journal writing as a kind of therapy in itself.

And it was, I guess. For many years, it was.

Or at least I thought it was. I only wrote what I felt, Abbott’s character Clare realises in the passage above (my emphasis): I never wrote what I saw. These are wise words. There came a time, in my own journal writing, when I looked back over all those handwritten pages and was dismayed to see that what I had thought of as a process of therapy and healing was more like a process of emotional purging, repeated over and over and over again.

Reading (or rather, trying to read) those passages felt oppressive, overwhelming. Why did I always have the same feelings? Why did I always write about those feelings? Why didn’t writing change the feelings? Why couldn’t I find a cure?

I’ve talked before about my scepticism when it comes to dubious concepts like recovery and healing and cure. That’s part of my theme today (again), but what interests me more here is the way Abbott, using the character Clare, focuses on another dubious concept: the huge weight we place these days on our feelings, and therefore on our need to untangle them and tidy them up.

Meditators often talk about the practice of watching their thoughts and feelings arise and then letting them pass by without becoming ‘attached’ to them. Though, intellectually, I’ve understood the reasoning behind this for years, it wasn’t until I saw it expressed through Clare’s character that I actually got it.

Feelings are repetitive, yes: I hadn’t been wrong about that, in re-reading my journals. What I had been wrong about was letting this bother me. And measuring myself by it.

I never wrote that I’ve made it this far. Here, Clare realises that feelings, as measuring-tools of ourselves and of our worth, will always fail. They do not mark where we are in our lives. They do not necessarily affect what we see, what we do, where we go. (Or they don’t have to, anyway.) In this sense they are, ultimately, irrelevant. Our feelings accompany us on our passage through life, but they don’t determine the actual passage itself.

And they don’t have to be cured.

Interestingly, given the recurrent out & about theme of some of my posts on this blog, the character Clare in Abbott’s book is a great walker. She walks at night when she can’t sleep: she walks, and walks, and walks. And, in contrast to when she’s writing her journal, when she walks, she sees. When she sees, she learns. Her feelings, as she walks, are a backdrop. They are not the main event.

As for me? I took the pictures in today’s post on one of my recent walks through the Scrub, a day in late October when the Scrub was filled with flowers that were purple and blue and pink and white. I was feeling fairly gloomy at the time of that walk — unwell; stressed about being unwell; stressed about my jobs; stressed about feeling stressed about all of these things — but the pictures don’t convey that stress.

And that is as it should be. The feelings were a backdrop to the walk. What I saw was real and lasting. That’s what matters.

Ubiquitous

Other people’s words about … fatigue

My legs, when I got up to go to the toilet or kitchen, felt light and shaky, far away from the rest of me …

Even speaking was too much. My words seemed pinned to the bottom of my jaw, and came out compressed and monosyllabic. I don’t remember crying much, but there was a dampness, as if moisture were constantly seeping through my skin, and sinking. As if everything inside me had become viscous, liquid, beholden to gravity and I was draining always to the lowest point; the soles of my feet, my buttocks, my back.

from ‘Anaesthesia’
by Kate Cole-Adams

The year I turned forty, I caught glandular fever (known by my North American readers as mononucleosis). It was a pretty typical case, I think: for the next year or so, I caught colds and viruses and coughs at the drop of a hat, and meanwhile I experienced a tiredness that — like the tiredness Kate Cole-Adams describes in the passage above, in a depiction of her own experience of adult-onset glandular fever — was beyond any kind of tiredness I had ever experienced before. It wasn’t tiredness at all, really: it was lethargy, lassitude, limpness, listlessness, languor — all those ‘L’ words, combined with a clammy, vaguely feverish kind of exhaustion. My limbs felt heavy and my head felt swirly and the floor seemed spongy beneath my feet.

Though the fatigue and exhaustion eventually, two or so years down the track, dissipated, I have found that even now, years later, I still get the occasional, sudden bout of glandular-fever-type fatigue. It always happens when I’m least expecting it and lasts for a few days, sometimes a week or more. If I think about it deeply enough, I am usually able to explain it by pointing to a higher than normal level of stress in my life.

I had one of those bouts again just recently. I’d come down to our house at Aldinga feeling tired and sleep-deprived after having been rostered on for a variety of different shifts in the space of a few days at my call-centre job. I had thought that I’d got through those shifts just fine, but as it turned out, I hadn’t, not quite.

So I spent the next few days at Aldinga sapped of energy and appetite: too tired to walk on the beach or catch up with family and friends as I’d planned; too tired, even, to write or to bake. Instead, I lay on the sofa in our sunny living room, and read, and dozed, and waited for the fatigue to pass. I knew that it would. I just didn’t know when. (Actually, I still don’t know. As I write this post, a couple of weeks down the track, I’m still experiencing fatigue and unwellness. But it will pass, as all things do.)

The first day that I felt even vaguely up to it, I went for a wander in the Scrub. I was still very tired, and so I took the walk slowly, following the path marked out by signposts for tourists, which takes you on a small loop through the Scrub: first south, parallel with the coast, then east towards the hills, then back northwards and west to the starting point. (Its official name is the Coral Lichen Circuit, and you can find more out about it here.)

It was late spring in the scrub: whistlers burbled (mostly) unseen in the branches. The yellow months had passed, and now it was the time for blues and purples and pinks and whites. And everywhere that I walked there were twining fringe lilies growing. As the photos in this post illustrate, I found them peeking through the leaves and branches and stalks and branches of sea box bushes, and rock ferns, and mallee pea-bushes, and muntries, and sheoaks, and grass trees, just to name a few.

They are common native flowers in South Australia, I gather — neither delicate nor rare. And yet each time I saw one on my walk that day, I felt a little thrust of joy at their very ubiquity. It was partly to do with the fact that I’ve learnt enough now, in all my wanders through the Scrub, to be able to identify them; partly to do with the fact that I’d reached a point in the ebb and flow of my own exhaustion where I felt I had enough stamina to go on another of those wanders, however gentle that wander was; and partly, simply, to do with the lovely prettiness of the lilies themselves.

Perhaps the fringe lilies were a symbol for me that day, growing and twining — despite their appearance of delicate fragility — in amongst all the other greenery. Thriving, despite everything.

Or perhaps symbols are unnecessary here. Perhaps it was enough just to see them and enjoy them exactly for what they were.

Note:
I recently found a wonderful resource for anyone who is interested in learning more about the Aldinga Scrub. It is the Flickr account of the Friends of the Aldinga Scrub, which has hundreds of wonderful photos taken in the Scrub, not only capturing but also identifying the native flora, fauna and fungi (and doing a much better job of this than I can ever hope to do, though I try). Check it out here.