Only connect: Those small moments

Other people’s words about connection

Paul sat alongside Julian on the kitchen floor. There was a long moment that they didn’t touch, or even look at each other. Paul could feel them staring at the same patch of wall, the scar … in the yellow paint. When Paul breached the distance he expected Julian to recoil, but he didn’t. Paul had barely touched his arm when Julian collapsed against him. He lay with his head on Paul’s lap, hardly making a sound but for the scattered rhythm of his breathing.

From ‘These Violent Delights’
by Micah Nemerever

Here in Australia, while countries all over the rest of the world have spent the last few months steadily vaccinating their populations against Covid-19, our population has remained largely unvaccinated. But now, with the kind of predictability that it seems only our political leaders were unable to predict, the Delta strain of Covid-19 has arrived on our shores. And because, without vaccination, lockdown is the only form of protection we have against the virus, we are — state by state — moving into lockdown once again, as the new strain of infection spreads. South Australia, where I live, went into a strict seven-day lockdown at 6pm on Tuesday night. The lockdown will be extended if the outbreak continues to grow, which is what has happened in New South Wales and Victoria.

Right now, I’m working from home. I’m lucky to be in the kind of work where this is possible, I know, but that’s the best I can say about the situation. Lockdowns are funny things, aren’t they? They do funny things to your mind, to your thinking. Maybe they lock your mind down, too?


Turn your back. Look away.

Anyway, in my spare time during lockdown I am reading, reading, reading. (Also writing a little, too, but that’s another story.) The libraries are closed but I have enough books from my last trip to my local library to tide me over, at least for now. And so I’m reading stories that transport me to other places and times, sentences that move me to laughter and tears, words that depict small moments of connection, like the moment between Julian and Paul in the passage above.

Everyone has their own way of coping, I know. Me? When things are tough, I collapse into books the way Julian collapses into Paul. I can think of far worse ways to collapse.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Chasing clouds

Other people’s words about … getting lost

I said earlier that I have no special running talents. In fact, I have one: getting lost.

No-one gets lost like I do. It’s not just a running thing. It’s a getting lost thing.

I’ve been lost when running, walking, driving, cycling, sailing, using public transport, even (once) taking a taxi, on at least three continents, since I first ventured out into the world as an unaccompanied teenager. I’ve temporarily abandoned a car in Milton Keynes, and once phoned [my wife] Clare from the outskirts of Northampton to warn her that I might not find my way home for days. I’ve never been lost on a running track (yet), but I have been lost indoors — not just temporarily disoriented, but properly, sit-down-and-cry-and-wait-to-die lost — on a disastrous visit to the Birmingham branch of Ikea.

From ‘Running Free’
by Richard Askwith

I am someone who gets lost as easily as Richard Askwith. I live in Australia, not England, so I’ve never got lost in Milton Keynes or Northampton, but I have certainly been to the Adelaide branch of Ikea and experienced that sense of utter lostness that he so delightfully describes as sit-down-and-cry-and-wait-to-die lost. (Though, actually, I would call that particular kind of ‘lost’ an Ikea thing rather than a getting lost thing. Just saying … )


Dune’s counterpane:
How can you ever feel lost when these are the things you see along your way?

I don’t just get lost physically, either. I frequently feel lost in a metaphorical sense, too. I admire anyone who seems to know (or who feels as though they know) where they are going in life. I don’t. I never have. The older I get, the more strongly I become aware of my inner sense of lostness.

Often, this innate sense of lostness feels like a burden. But not always. Because the thing about setting off towards one place and ending up somewhere else entirely, somewhere you hadn’t planned on and don’t recognise at all, is that you get the chance to explore.


Lizzie the garden cat:
A lost cat, but also a found one.

I’m talking metaphorically here again, of course. But the older I get, the more strongly I also come to understand the importance of being willing to explore, willing to wander, willing to wonder. And sometimes, in hopeful moments, I see many years of exploring and wandering and wondering ahead of me.

I like that thought.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Thankful

Other people’s words about … love

And the way I felt, seeing him for the first time in four years, was the way I felt every time I saw him in public all the years we were together. If I arrived somewhere and saw him already waiting for me, or walking in my direction, if he was talking to someone on the other side of a room — it wasn’t a thrill, a rush of affection, or pleasure. Then, in the church, I didn’t know what it was and spent all of the service trying to diagnose it. At the end of the service, Patrick smiled at me once more as I moved back … and I felt it again, so much from my core that it was difficult to keep going, to follow Ingrid and Hamish out, Patrick further and further behind me …

Thank God is how I felt when I saw Patrick that day. Not a thrill or affection or pleasure. Visceral relief.

From ‘Sorrow and Bliss’
by Meg Mason

I think Meg Mason’s words in the passage I’ve quoted above are possibly some of the best I’ve read as a description of what it feels like to love someone who is your lifelong partner, or husband, or companion. I’ve read many eloquent and moving (and arousing, even) descriptions of romantic love in fiction over the years, all of which I also love. But it takes a certain kind of grim, black humour to describe the other part of loving someone, that part which is more a kind of fatalistic recognition of how much a person can physically become a part of you, how much you know you need them and love them, and yet how little it seems to have to do with that word we so often overuse — ‘love’.

Sorrow and bliss, indeed.

Study in blue.

I’m writing today in the last week of January 2021, a month in which 100 million cases of coronavirus have been recorded in the last year or so, along with about 2 million deaths, since the first case was reported to the World Health Organization in Wuhan around the same time last year. In Australia, the virus has so far remained relatively under control — possibly due to sheer luck of timing and distance, I think, rather than to any kind of incredible management as far as leadership goes — and so we remain, for now at least, protected. Instead, Australians watch the tragedy unfolding from afar, and we mourn and hold our breaths at the same time, hoping the same thing won’t come to us.

Lizzie the garden cat, inching closer.

To me, this time, early 2021, feels like a time for a collective holding of the breath, across the globe. Who knows what 2021 holds? There is plenty of news bringing whiffs of hope — a vaccine, a new president in the US, a growing political will to respond to global warming and climate change. But it’s too early to know, yet, whether these whiffs of hope will be realised, or whether this time is just a lull in a gathering storm.

I hope, I hope, I hope.

And meanwhile, on a personal scale, I am grateful for the small but beautiful things in the world around me and in my life, a small sample of which I’ve captured in the photographs accompanying this post. It’s trite, perhaps, to fall back on the quotidian details, on appreciating and acknowledging the humdrum rhythms of everyday, but that doesn’t make the process any less meaningful or important. Meanwhile, there is another aspect to my life that I haven’t captured here, an aspect which will remain unpictured, but for which I, like Mason’s Martha, remain viscerally grateful. If you feel any accord for Mason’s words, you will know what I mean.

Your own Thank God.

Tree hug.

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.

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 …

Enough

Other people’s words about … running

When it was light enough to run, I set out on the path that circles Lake Burley-Griffin. The last time I’d run there, I had mucked up that marathon. The temperature hovered at zero: my ungloved hands were painfully cold, and my throat burned on each inhalation. Heavy banks of mist rose from the water; garnet-coloured leaves caught the first morning sunlight; galahs dug for seeds in grasslands rigid with frost; yellow poplars blazed alongside conifers and eucalypts I couldn’t name; hot-air balloons floated from the horizon at the opposite bank. I ran to stay warm and I ran to buoy my mood and I ran to stay a part of this glorious composition. I ran too because once I’d committed to the loop, I had no other way of getting back to my car.

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

Two weeks ago, feeling sore and stiff and out of sorts and achey, I googled ‘hip flexor stretches for runners’ (or some such other, similar, innocuous phrase) and downloaded a set of five stretches that I vowed to do daily, in an effort to loosen up my nearly-fifty-year-old, sedentary worker’s body.

That, at least, was the plan. But one of those five daily stretches was a kind of yoga squat: a pose where you bend your knees from a standing position and lower yourself down to a straight-backed crouch — keeping the soles of your feet flat on the ground and placing your arms between your knees, hands in prayer position — and then stay there, in that deep, stationary squat, for a minute or two. I did this comfortably enough (though somewhat awkwardly) on Day One. On Day Two, I felt sore afterwards; and then I made myself far, far sorer by going for a run despite that post-stretch soreness. And I’ve been sore ever since — so sore, in fact, that my physiotherapist tells me I need to lay off from running for now. Not because this is a running injury (it’s not, technically, since I didn’t get it while I was running), but because running exacerbates it.

So here I am, not running, for the first time since I took up running again back in 2017, at the age of forty-seven.

It is enough:
(1) There are pots of tea to brew …

Strangely enough, I don’t mind at all. I thought I would mind, and in a pre-pandemic life I probably would have. But today? Right now? I don’t.

Because if there is one thing I am grateful for, in this strange, post-pandemic world, it is that living in a lockdown has reminded me to slow down: to accept my life for what it is rather than for what I thought it might be. (Or could be. Or should be.) I am healthy, and so are my family and friends. I have a job, and a roof over my head, and a bed to sleep in. I have books to read, and pots of tea to brew, and cakes to bake, and beautiful bowls to eat from, and beaches to walk on (if not, for now, to run on).

That is what I have, and it is enough. It is truly enough.

It is enough:
(2) … and beautiful bowls to eat from.

When I read Catriona Menzies-Pike’s words in the passage above — I ran to stay warm and I ran to buoy my mood and I ran to stay a part of this glorious composition — I had to blink away tears. Those are the reasons I run, too. They are the reasons I will run again, one day sooner or later.

But still, what I have right now, though it isn’t that, is enough. It is another loop, though not of the running kind, and I am committed to it. And it is, simply, enough.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Beside the point

Other people’s words about … the world we live in

In the past few months [my eight-year-old son] Jack has become exasperated with my talking back to the radio. ‘You have to cheer up,’ he’ll say … And so I’ve been trying to keep most of my feelings about the news to myself. I’m grateful for the trust and sanguinity Jack displays these days, which makes me feel I’ve done something right. It’s only that, as the world seems to become an increasingly dangerous place, I wonder if happiness is the point. Maybe passion, something that can keep you satisfied inside your own head, independent of other people, is going to be worth more in Jack’s lifetime.

From ‘Lost and Wanted’
by Nell Freudenberger

The novel I’ve quoted from in today’s blog post was published in 2019, meaning that Freudenberger wrote it well before the coronavirus pandemic began. And here, in fact, when Freudenberger’s Boston-based narrator Helen mentions the world becoming an increasingly dangerous place, she is, in the context of the paragraphs that precede this passage, referring not to public health but to politics. Specifically, she is talking about the election of Donald Trump, and about the effect his policies have had on her and her world.

Still, Helen’s words ring eerily true to me in the world of 2020, this post-pandemic world. What is it that keeps us going when happiness is either inaccessible or beside the point? Is it passion, as Helen suggests? I’m not sure, but I do like the idea of finding something that can keep you satisfied inside your own head, independent of other people.

So tell me: what keeps you satisfied inside your own head? I’m curious. I’d love to know.

18 April 2020:
Aldinga Beach (my world)

Lately I’ve been reading …