Only connect: The secrets of the universe

Other people’s words about connection

I placed my hand on the back of his neck. I pulled him toward me. And kissed him. I kissed him. And I kissed him. And I kissed him. And I kissed him. And he kept kissing me back.
We laughed and we talked and looked up at the stars.
‘I wished it was raining,’ he said.
‘I don’t need the rain, ‘I said. ‘I need you.’
He traced his name on my back. I traced my name on his.
All this time.

From ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

I am a sucker for a love story that moves me. The older I get, the more what I mean when I talk about ‘a love story that moves me’ is ‘a love story that makes me weep’.

It’s taken me years to work out why this is. It is not because I am not loved. It is not because I do not love in return. It is because the love stories that make me weep are about a moment — or moments — of connection.


Big sky.

Oh, connection. I had planned in this post to theorise about why I — like so many other people, I suspect — feel so disconnected right now from other people and from the natural world around me. I’d planned to talk about the coronavirus pandemic. About the climate change crisis. About violence and discrimination against people who are not white or male or middle-class or heterosexual or young. And about what it feels like, as a non-married, non-childbearing, non-career-driven woman to turn fifty-one in this year, 2021.

But in the end I decided against writing about those things — partly because I’ve talked about them in previous posts over the years, and partly because most of these things are common topics of conversation right now, and I don’t think I have any new ideas to contribute.


Meeting place.

What I have decided to do instead is to start a new occasional series on this blog called — in the spirit of EM Forster, whose words in 1910 in Howard’s End seem more prescient than ever — Only connect!. In this series, I will be quoting passages that are in one way or another about those moments of connection that move me so deeply. Mostly, I suspect, that means the quotes in this series, like the passage I’ve quoted above from Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s beautiful novel for young adults about two Mexican-American boys who fall in love with each other in the 1980s, will be about love and intimacy. But there are other forms of connection that move me, too, and I will quote passages about them here, too.

Years ago, when I first wrote the blurb on my About the Words page of this blog, this is what I wrote: [This blog is] about my love for words, particularly other people’s words, and how they speak to me. Words can make us laugh, cry, think, hope, dream, rage —- but they have no meaning unless they are shared. I see now that what I was saying when I wrote that blurb was that words are a form of connection. And so I hope, in bringing this new series of posts to you that you, too, feel a moment of connection — with the words I’ve quoted, with the writer who wrote them, with me, too, perhaps.


A pot of tea and a book.

PS The photographs that dot this post come from a recent trip with my partner to our favourite camping spot in Yorke Peninsula, where we parked our caravan and spent the week reading, walking, eating, sleeping. We had no access to mobile phone coverage, or to emails, or to the internet. Strangely, it did not feel as though we were disconnected at all. Rather, it felt as though we were reconnecting — with each other, with the world around us, and with the natural rhythms of life. And that, perhaps, is the truest kind of connection of all.

Lately I’ve been reading …

2021

Other people’s words about … rest, and solitude

She lay down a lot — it became an activity, a way to pass the time. She lay down on the couch, reading. She lay down on the bed and, while the sky changed out the windows, was overcome by memories. She lay down on the dock and listened to the ever-changing motion of the water …

She ate only what was for sale at the farm stand … and scrambled or fried eggs and toast — it seemed like too much work to cook meat or fish, even to make a salad. At night she listened to the radio and drank wine …

She made herself take a daily walk. Once she walked partway around the lake on the path in the woods. Through the treillage of the trees she had glimpses of the expensive summer homes, some of them silent, apparently not yet opened. But at others, she could hear the shrieks of children playing. The next day, toward the end of the afternoon, it was adult voices that floated over to her from an elegant old house, the clink of ice in glasses, the laughter of the cocktail hour. It was hard to come back to the cottage after that, hard to feel her solitude.

From ‘Monogamy’
by Sue Miller

I hadn’t planned to write another post this year, thinking that the words in my last post were enough to finish my blogging year with. But, perhaps like everyone else alive today, I’ve gone on thinking about this past year, 2020. Even for me — one of the lucky people who hasn’t been affected in any material way by the pandemic, beyond being a witness to the tragedies it has inflicted worldwide — this has been a strange year.

In the passage above, Sue Miller is describing the passage through grief that Annie, the protagonist of the novel, takes in the weeks immediately after the death of her much-loved husband, Graham. Annie’s passage, even in these first early weeks, isn’t easy; even the rest and solitude she seeks in the summer cottage she and Graham bought together early in their marriage are troubled.

It strikes me that Miller’s description of a woman seeking solitude and rest as a salve for her grief is a description that transcends Annie’s particular situation. How do you feel, in the wake of 2020? Do you, too, feel filled with grief?

Peaceful, dappled light.

I have grown a little tired of the voices clamouring their joy at the prospect of the arrival of 2021. I don’t believe that the clicking over of the clock from 11.59 pm on 31 December to 12.00 am on 1 January heralds a miraculous change in the world’s fortunes. I see a long, troubled passage ahead of us across the globe, in many spheres, including public health, politics and the environment.

But I do believe, like Annie, in the healing power of rest and solitude, however difficult it may be to come back to that solitude, however hard it may be to feel it. I believe that compassion and change come from considered thought and contemplation. I believe that we have to seek peace in our hearts before we can see it reflected in the world.

And so, along with my wishes to you for a merry Christmas and holiday season and a happy new year, I wish you, too, some time to find peace. And I hope, if you find that peace, that you stoke it and kindle it inside yourself. I hope you bring it back with you into the world, so that change — real change — can begin.

Lately I’ve been reading …

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.

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

More, more, more

Other people’s words about … not being afraid

I don’t know how to explain this, except that everything in my life changed after I had children. I didn’t understand how to parent. No one really knows how to parent until they have kids but I’ve often worried that I parent scared … I didn’t know there were ways to protect the people you loved and not be fearful. Or that we don’t control very much of anything that happens anyway.

From ‘Elsey Come Home’
by Susan Conley

It might seem odd that I feel an affinity with Susan Conley’s words in the passage above, given that I’m not a parent, given that parenthood hasn’t changed my life in the way that she, as a parent, describes it having changed hers. And yet there is such a resonance for me in this passage. Conley’s words apply, I think, not just to parenthood, but to life. I’ve often worried that I parent scared, she writes — but how easy would it be to change the wording slightly? To say instead, I’ve often worried that I live scared?

Quiet skes

I’ve had a funny week this week. I’m still fretting about the way, as the lockdown stage of the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end, the quietness of our world has also, inevitably, begun to recede. There were more people in the office at work this week, more bodies squeezed into our small call centre room, more voices speaking into telephones, more colleagues speaking over each other in an effort to be heard. There were more customers in the shops, cars on the road, commuters on the trains, pedestrians in the streets, people on the beach. There was more laughter, yes, but there was also more noise. There was more of everything.

We don’t control very much of anything that happens anyway, Conley writes, and she is right: just as we had no control over the pandemic happening in the first place, so, also, we don’t have much control over its aftermath. All we can control, as always, is our response to these things.

My response is to try to teach myself to carry the quietness I felt blossom inside of me during the lockdown back into the world as it reopens. But I have to confess that this remains a work in progress. I feel as though I have to learn to retune the strings of my heart: as though, when I plucked them during the lockdown, they made music, but now, once again, all they make is discordant, jangling noise.

So I have no solutions to offer in my post this week, except to say: here I am, plucking away, trying to make music, trying to make a song. Are you, too, learning to sing?

Quiet waters

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 …

It is what it is

Other people’s words about … looking beautiful

I like to look clean and presentable, but I don’t think about beauty too much. It’s just not in my mind.

Lulu Goddard
‘My Beauty Uniform’
In A Cup of Jo

Though I understand the difference between internal and external beauty, and the importance of the former in contrast to the latter, I think I will always remain fascinated by the way other women look, and, even more, the way other women feel about the way they look. Most of all, I will always be interested in how other women find peace with themselves and their appearance.

So I loved the interview from which I’ve quote above with Lulu Goddard, whose cheerful, no-nonsense attitude to her appearance reflects her cheerful, no-nonsense, humble attitude to life in general. You can find the rest of interview here.

Restorative

Lulu’s a tea-drinker, like me. She drinks several cups a day, and enjoys a slice of cake with her tea. Reading her interview over my own morning pot of tea, I found myself smiling in agreement with much of what she said. There is much to worry about in this world, and my posts recently have touched on this. But it’s good to step back from all of these things, too, just for a few moments each day: to allow yourself to be restored.

Which is, perhaps, just my way of saying: here’s another important way to find peace with yourself and your life.

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.

Unrepentant

Other people’s words about … life after therapy

It’s an odd sensation to be done with therapy, to believe it is no longer available to me as a recourse. I watch as people around me flow in and out of therapy, and as therapy flows in and out of them. I feel a familiar sense of alienation, and sometimes I’m also troubled by an obscure sense of uncleanliness, as if my resolution to abjure therapy were a perverse abstention from universally accepted hygienic practices — as if I’d taken a vow never to wash again. Therapy is an ablution, a Ganges in which everyone bathes.

From ‘Mockingbird Years’
by Emily Fox Gordon

There are two things I experimented with to excess in the years before I turned forty: restricting my eating and, like Emily Fox Gordon, consulting therapists.

So many different eating plans.

So many damn therapists!

I thought they would make me a better, healthier, happier person, but I was wrong on both counts.

Things that make me happy that don’t involve therapy or dieting (1):
A bunch of flowers planted in the dune, which I happened upon on a recent run

But in my early forties I came to a turning point, and now, nearing fifty, I know there’s no turning back. I am done with diets and therapists forever.

So here is my promise, to myself and to you: I will grow old therapy-free, no matter how unenlightened that may leave me.

And I will grow old (joyfully, unrepentantly) eating cake!

Things that make me happy that don’t involve therapy or dieting (2):
Views like this on my walk to work in the morning

Lately I’ve been reading about …