Say it loud, say it true

Other people’s words about … writing

Dan sits at his desk [to write his book] and closes the door to the hall, to the world. Winter unfolds around the cottage, June to July, and time flutters to the ground like pages. Too few pages. Never enough.

From ‘The Breeding Season’
by Amanda Niehaus

A few weeks ago, right at the end of my first week in my new job, I spent a weekend with a group of women who are writers and artists, some of whom I’d known for many years, a couple of whom I’d never met before. We walked along the beach, and we talked, and we laughed, and we ate, and we drank gin and tonic. And then we parted ways again, some of us driving back along the winding coastal roads towards the city to a life made entirely of writing and drawing, some of us driving back to a life made partly of writing and partly of child-rearing or paid work outside of the home.

Lunch break view (1): Climbing the mast

The woman who had organised the weekend had planned it, loosely, as a writers’ retreat, and indeed some of the women — a couple of whom had strict deadlines to meet with their publishers — did write during the weekend. The rest of us sat outside around a table on the sun-drenched balcony, sharing stories of our writing: our latest work in progress, recent reviews, launches we’d attended, talks we’d given, and so on.

I say we and us, but the first-person pronoun sits queasily with me, because I haven’t published anything for ten years, and because I’ve been through periods in recent years where I’ve consciously stopped writing altogether and tried to move on to other things in my life. This year, during the early months of my freelance life, I started writing again, but the process has continued to feel tentative, precarious (that word again!), and filled with doubt and fear.

Lunch break view (2): Red and blue

And so I felt a little like an intruder at that sun-splashed table on the balcony overlooking the sea. Sure, I have stories to tell about writing and about the books I’ve written, but they’re stories anchored in the past, not the present. Mostly, then, I stayed silent, without contributing when the talk turned back to writing. I listened to the things my companions were discussing, the things they said they thought about as they wrote. And as I listened, I reflected — as I have so many times over the last year or two — that what stops me from writing these days (or, more accurately, what stops me from completing any of the writing I start these days) isn’t so much a lack of confidence in my writing as it is a lack of confidence in my self: who I am, where I fit in the world. What I experience. What I think. What I stand for. What I believe. What I feel.

What I want to say.

Lunch break view (3): Seagull companion

For me, writing has always been about having a voice. In essence, it’s about having a conversation on the page with my readers. And so, implicitly, it’s about feeling that I have the right to express myself, to speak up, to tell a story: my story. It makes sense, then, that in the last few years, as I’ve found it increasingly hard to talk aloud — in conversation, I mean, to family, to friends, to peers, to colleagues — about the way I experience the world, my world, I have also found it increasingly hard to write.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever write or publish another book again in my life, and I understand that, in the scheme of things, whether I do or not is probably neither here nor there. But I do know that in order to write again, I will have to learn to believe in my voice once more, and to be able to listen to myself somehow, and to manage to see myself not as an intruder but as someone who belongs in this world. Until I can do these things, I will keep letting those pages of mine — the actual pages and the metaphorical ones, the pages of time, the pages of my life — flutter, like Dan’s in the passage I’ve quoted above, to the ground.

Weekend view: under the arch

Sometimes when I write posts like this on my blog, they feel self-indulgent, self-referential, self-absorbed. And perhaps my posts are all of these things. But perhaps, too, there’s a reader out there somewhere, reading this post, who has felt (some of) the things I’m writing about today, and who hears her voice reflected back to her as she reads. I want you to know, reader out there, that you are not alone in this world. Your voice matters. Your short life matters. You matter.

So go on, say what you have to say: and say it loud, say it true. This world, this life, belongs to you, too.

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.

Time and tide

Other people’s words about … sea pools

Where the rock sloped into the water, it created a deep green pool. On a good day, when there was enough cloud so that there was no reflection and no wind to rumple the skin of the water, you could see all the way to the sandy bottom. Arrowed fish in triangles darted across the pool, and swathes of kelp swayed in and out with the current.

From ‘Skylarking
by Kate Mildenhall

The last time we camped at Yorke Peninsula, we spent a couple of days camped on the top of a cliff overlooking a headland that reached out into a sheltered bay. In the evenings, as the sun lowered, I would go to sit right on the edge of that cliff, my legs crossed beneath me, ankles beneath my knees, knees resting on the sand. While I sat there, I watched the sea wash over the shore down below and then recede, over and over again. Each time the tide rolled in, the fronds of seaweed beneath the surface waved in one direction; each time the tide dropped back, the fronds of seaweed swirled and waved back in the other direction, just as Kate Mildenhall describes it in the passage above.

I’ve always loved the sea: always loved to look at it and admire it. But I’d never watched the dance of seaweed beneath the water like that before. It felt like a form of meditation, almost, the kind of meditation I could consider taking up regularly, the kind of meditation I would miss when we left.

I do miss that meditation. And I miss the view …

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.

Walk on

Other people’s words about … things falling apart

When you’ve passed through a difficult period, it can be tempting to yearn for a delivery of good fortune, or for experience that feels redemptive somehow. You want suffering to have purpose, for pain to be justified by wisdom or abundance or growth.

from Weekend Reading
by Gena of The Full Helping blog

I had an odd weekend recently, going through some of my old journals and photos for writing-related reasons. The entries I’d written in my journals back then, during a time in my twenties when I lived overseas — first in Texas, then England, then Germany, Cairo, Jakarta — were vividly descriptive of a life I no longer lead, nor will ever lead again. Those journal entries threw me back to a ‘me’ I hadn’t exactly forgotten but somehow, foolishly, thought I had let go of.

Although I have let go of that me, mostly.

My life, during those years I lived overseas, was filled with extremes — of loneliness, joy, excitement, fear, love, doubt, sorrow, terror, grief. There was one particularly difficult period, living in Jakarta with my then boyfriend, when one thing after another went terribly wrong, and I felt as though I was walking through my days — those days that made up my life as I then knew it — with my head down, just waiting for the next blow.

Like Gena, in the words I’ve quoted above, sometimes in Jakarta I just wanted those most difficult days to have a meaning. A purpose. But they didn’t. Even now, when I look back on those times, I find them hard to make sense of. I think I always will.

Gena quotes the Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron, who says the following in her book When Things Fall Apart:

We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

These days, I would quibble with Pema Chodron’s use of the word healing — isn’t that just another way of saying you can solve things? — but then, I’m not a Buddhist. Or a Nun.

Still, I like the notion of things falling apart and then coming together again, only to fall apart once more; I find it immensely comforting. Even more, I like Pema Chodron’s simple statement, neither defeatist not celebratory, that life is just like that.

It is just like that, isn’t it?


I took the photographs accompanying today’s posts during our most recent camping trip in Yorke Peninsula. It was mid-November, and the late-spring flowers dappled the dunes. Fan flowers, common sea heath, grasses, sedges, acacias and other flowers I couldn’t identify and don’t usually see at home had sprung up everywhere, in every bare patch of sandy ground, in every sheltered nook, in every little cranny in the rocks. Walking amongst them, I felt things come together again in my heart, for a little while.

And then — well, then I let go. And walked on.

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.