How you receive the world

Other people’s words about … being vulnerable

But still she couldn’t sleep. The window was open and bare. The curtain had fallen down and no-one had bothered to put it back up because it always fell down again when you tried to pull it across. Ada was afraid that something bad was in the garden. The trees creaked. The night swam through the window and came into the room like a river.

From ‘The Last Summer of Ada Bloom’
by Martine Murray

Sometimes things are not as they seem. Sometimes the world outside seems dark and threatening, as Ada perceives it to be in Martine Murray’s gorgeous words quoted above — even when it is not.

In my last blog post, I wrote about some bad feedback that I thought I’d been given about a project I’ve been working on for a very long time. It turns out that that feedback wasn’t what it seemed at first to me, and that I’d been wrong in my interpretation of it. It turns out that there is hope for that project, after all.

Sometimes it depends on how you look at things, and on how you receive the world.

How you look at it: Darkness or light?

The project I was referring to was one I’d worked on for a long time, although over the years my commitment to it had wavered and waxed and waned. Sometimes I’d tried to run away from it, but every time I did, I would find myself returning to it, unable to abandon it until I knew that I had seen it through, no matter what the outcome would be. Towards the end I lost all sense of joy in my work on that project. It became a self-imposed duty, something I had to do regardless of the outcome, regardless of how I myself felt about it, regardless of how much time or energy or wellbeing it demanded of me. That’s why, when I thought that the feedback I’d received on it implied that I might have to do some more work in order to get it across the line, I wrote: And I do not (yet) know if I have the energy or the moral courage to do that work. I truly do not know.

In the days after I received that feedback, as I tried to work through my response, a kind friend asked me if I had ever listened to Brene Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability. I had heard of Brene Brown but I had never listened to her talk, nor I had I ever read any of her material. Without knowing anything about her, I had written her off as some kind of New Age guru or self-help profiteer. But I respect this friend a great deal, and in addition I was feeling so vulnerable that I figured listening to someone else talk about vulnerability might not be such a bad thing. So I sat down and listened to the talk, and within the first two minutes I found myself weeping.

Have you listened to it? If you haven’t, I can only recommend that you do. It is a humble speech, filled with common sense and humorous insight. It is a talk about how we long to connect with each other, and how important it is for us not to be afraid to connect, and what it takes to do so. For me, listening to Brown was a lightning moment. I wish a lot of things, but in relation to this project one of the things I most wish is that I had reached out earlier while I was working on it. I wish I had been unafraid to ask for feedback or advice right back in the early stages. I wish I had been willing to say to someone: This is what I’m working on, and it’s not working, and I don’t know why.

I didn’t, because I was seeking perfection. I didn’t, because I felt too vulnerable. But there is no such thing as perfection. And sometimes you have to be willing to feel vulnerable to move on.

This is Brene Brown’s TED talk, if you want to listen to it.

How you look at it: cute or wild?

In the aftermath of all of this, I feel exhausted and fragile. I still don’t know what will happen now that my project is out in the world (although I promise that I’ll tell you when I find out). At the same time, I feel as though I’ve learned something that I needed to know — not just about that project, but about myself. That’s another reason that it’s important to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It’s the only way we can learn.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Wild, wondrous

Other people’s words about … this huge earth

We don’t talk — the sea rises, crashes, pushes up the shore. It’s crawling up towards us [at the top of the dune], the tide turned high. The wind has gone feral. It rattles the sand under our feet. It flings the grass flat. Seagulls do loop-the-loops in the screaming sky. I watch the water, look out farther, farther, and if I look hard enough, maybe I’ll see past the cargo ships sitting like wobbly chess pieces on the grand back of the ocean, past the islands teetering at the edge of the earth, across to rumpled mountains and cities and past the future and past the sun, all the way round the earth and back to us on the pummelled sand, the gulls wailing, the two of us standing side by side and not touching.

From ‘How it Feels to Float’
by Helena Fox

The sea on a windy day is a wild, wondrous thing, as Helena Fox so beautifully describes in the passage I’ve quoted above. But I’m particularly taken by the last words in that passage: the two of us standing side by side and not touching. Is this a moment of intimacy that Fox is describing, do you think? Or is it a moment of terrible, lonely disconnect? I don’t know. My own personal answer to these questions changes depending on my mood.

Above.

I’ve had a strange couple of weeks since I last posted here, the details of which I don’t feel able to reveal right now. What I can say is this: a couple of weeks ago, I finished working on a project on which I’ve been working for a very, very long time, and I felt, as I finished working on it, a huge sense of completion. But my sense of completion was accompanied by a terrible sense of fear that, despite my hard work, despite my own sense of completion, the project might not be received well in the quarters that I needed it to be received well. That it might flop. Fail.

After I had completed the project, I waited for feedback, as I had been instructed to. I tried not to be filled with hope during that time: I am a pessimist, after all; I don’t believe in hope. But still, I did hope, despite myself. I think I was just hoping that my sense of completion wasn’t a terrible mistake. I wasn’t expecting success or adulation, but I was hoping, I suppose, that I was at least right in my belief that I had finished my work on this project.

And then I did receive the feedback on my project (unexpectedly quickly), and that feedback was exactly what I had feared all along. I was mistaken in thinking that I’d finished. There is still more work to be done. And I do not (yet) know if I have the energy or the moral courage to do that work. I truly do not know.

In between.

What does that have to do with Fox’s two of us standing side by side and not touching, you might ask? I don’t know, except that for me those words encapsulate that feeling of utter loneliness you can have, even when you have spent your life standing beside someone you love; even when you have known all your life that you are loved. I know that intimacy isn’t always about touching someone, or about someone touching you. But I also know that touching isn’t always a physical act.

Sometimes the sense that between the sky above and the earth below there is no-one in this world of ours you can reach out to and touch is very strong, is all I’m saying. It’s a feeling that is no less lonely or profound for all that it’s simply a consequence of being part of this wild, wondrous thing we call life.

Below.

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 …

Do what you love (if you can)

Other people’s words about … running, and life

I turned in the manuscript in September. I stopped seeing friends and only showered on days I ran and they weren’t even good runs. They were short, stuttering attempts that maxed out at 2 miles. I found no joy in them. They no longer served a purpose — not even a dark one … I set out on runs hoping I’d feel that soaring feeling from the year before, but it never came. I’d run, then walk. Sometimes I sat down. Once I lay down on a pile of leaves in the park. I didn’t care if I scared another toddler or his mother. I was too tired to move on, and stood up only after I was almost run over by a landscaper on a lawn mower bagging leaves.

From ‘Running: A Love Story’
by Jen A. Miller

I started running again recently, after a long time of not running (months, even). Just as Jen Miller describes in the passage above, my attempts right now are slow and stuttering, although the reason for this in my case isn’t heartbreak or depression, as it was for Miller, but rather the need to come back slowly and tentatively, as I regain my strength after an injury, which turned out to be peroneal tendonitis. (Sort of.) (But that’s a story for another day, perhaps.)

At the moment, I’m obediently doing run/walk intervals, just as my physiotherapist instructed me to. It’s not the same as running in one, delightful, uninterrupted trance, but I’m finding it joyful, all the same.

Following my path.

Running is many things to many people, as the plethora of books on the subject (ranging from how-to instruction manuals through to memoirs about how running helped heal someone’s grief or mental illness) will confirm. When I first started running three years ago, I devoured those books, seeking tips on technique (for which they were sometimes useful and sometimes not) and kindred spirits (which I sometimes found and sometimes didn’t).

But to be perfectly honest, I’ve grown tired of reading other runners’ thoughts on running. I’m tired of being exhorted to include speed runs and hill runs each week. I’m tired of being told, repeatedly, that unless I enter a race, I’ll never improve my PR. (Or is PB? I always forget. Is there a difference? If there is, I don’t understand it.) I’m tired of reading that running is a social activity, best done with friends. And I’m very, very tired of being told that, in order to prevent myself from getting injured, there is only one way to run (for example, barefoot running. Or forefoot striking. Or running very slowly. Or running a minimum of 180 steps per minute. Or running every day. Or ensuring that you never run two days in a row. Or practising yoga. Or focusing on strength-training. Or stretching before running. Or never stretching at all. Or running on an empty stomach. Or ensuring that you fuel up correctly before you run. Etc. Etc. Etc.)

Because what I’ve realised during my time away is that I don’t run to keep fit, or to challenge myself, or to keep my weight down. Nor do I run so that I can call myself an athlete, or to get faster, or to reduce my anxiety. I don’t even run, as some writers do, in the hope that I’ll get better at writing.

Sometimes, I admit, running helps with some of those things. But sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t run far, and I don’t run fast, but I’ll still keep running, anyway, for as long as I can, if I get the choice.

In the end, I run because I like running, and that’s enough for me.

Reflections along the way.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Riches

Other people’s words about … bitter weather

This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.

‘Time to Be Slow’
by John O’Donohue

I met with a friend for coffee a couple of days ago — a friend I hadn’t seen for a number of years, someone I thought had moved on in her life; someone I thought, I guess, that I’d never see again. I have come to understand that friendships come and go, and that the friendships that don’t last aren’t any less rich for the shortness of their duration, though they are still worth grieving. And so, though I had missed this friend once we stopped seeing each other, what I mostly felt when I thought about her over the last few years was gratitude for having had her in my life, however short-lasting her friendship may have been.

But last week she reached out to me again, and over coffee we found ourselves taking up where we had left off. And so now I am feeling doubly blessed — for the richness of the friendship we’ve had so far, and for the richness of a friendship that has begun again, for however long.

Time to be slow

We talked about our lives over the last few years, and — of course — about this particular, strange year. And a few hours after we had said good bye, she sent me a link to the poem I have quoted in this post. (The original link she sent me was here.)

Because it is a lovely poem, and because life, like friendship, can have twists and turns that seem utterly bewildering despite our every attempt to make the most of it, I’ve quoted the poem for you here in its entirety. 

As I write this post, we are coming to the end of 2020 — though not, I think, to the end of this strange, troubling time. I hope this poems reminds you of life’s richness, however troubling it may be.

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.

On wonder, and grief

Other people’s words about … this amazing world

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

From ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’
by Matt Haig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burning, breaking

Other people’s words about … climate change

For the very first time, the wetlands are also on fire. Old Gondwana growth, ancient forests are aflame. This is not the forest that regenerates; what is being lost will never return. It is not hard to see that something is deeply, palpably wrong. All winter drought conditions have intensified; the building fire skipped the river, which should have been a natural break. There is practically no water left; the Shoalhaven is so parched that the town will run dry within months.

From ‘Mourning a Disappearing World as Australia Burns’
by Jessica Friedmann
Read the whole article here

Happy New Year to all my readers. I wish you all a joyous 2020.

I’m writing this post on a day in which bushfires continue to rage uncontrolled across much of my country. I know that this story is being covered by the media, and so there is not much I can say that you yourselves probably haven’t read or thought already. The article I’ve quoted in today’s post is worth reading, though, in addition to whatever else you’ve read or heard: I am in accordance with much of what Friedmann writes.

All I will say is this: it has astonished me for years that I live in a country where it is possible for politicians to deny that climate change is occurring, that I live in a country (a world?) where apathy and bluster are accepted forms of political leadership.

My country is burning. It has been getting ready to burn like this for years. It breaks my heart.

It breaks my heart.

Holiday views, though the fires were already burning when I took this photograph.
View from the Kangaroo Island ferry, 29 December 2019

The stories we tell

Lately I’ve been reading about … river red gums

I didn’t just notice the river red gums, but also the cracked mud of receding water, rotting gum leaves, greater eastern egrets, kingfisher, heron, ibis, ducks, emus, kangaroos, wild horses, wasps and flies. I even saw (threatened) Murray cod foraging in the shallow water along the lake’s bank, and quickly learnt to look for them at the centre of the ripples of golden tannin their fins sent out. It was the first time I’d seen them surface, amphibian-like, in this manner. The effect was prehistoric. A single galah feather caught in a spider web stretched, strong as rope, between two river gums, waved gently in the corner of my vision.

From ‘Biyala Stories
by Sophie Cunningham

Each month this year, I’m taking a walk through the Aldinga Scrub — the same walk each time, along the Coral Lichen Circuit, which follows a gentle, undulating loop through the Scrub, with spots that overlook both the coast (to the west) and the hills (to the east) — to watch the seasons ring their changes on the landscape. I’ve walked the Scrub so often, taken pictures of the trees and the flowers, listened to the birdsong and the sound of the waves in the distance, to the wind moving through the trees. But I want to know the Scrub better, to know it intimately, to witness it. I want to know its intricacies — the kinds of intricacies that Sophie Cunningham describes so beautifully in the passage I’ve quoted above.

Cunningham’s essay is about the river red gums that grow in the part of the world where she lives: Melbourne (mostly), Victoria. It’s a thoughtful, erudite, poetic essay, at least in part about the stories these trees can tell us, the stories they might add to our own (human) narrative if we were able to listen. (You can read it here.) It came to me, as I read her essay, that I don’t know the stories of the trees in my own part of the world, this part of the world I’ve said so often and so glibly that I love.


Aldinga Scrub: January.
SA blue gums.

The trees of the Aldinga Scrub, like the river red gums in Cunningham’s essay, are struggling to survive. So are the plants of the Scrub, the birds and the animals. Their survival is threatened by many things, including encroaching housing developments; farming practices that have, since World War II, diverted the natural water flow away from the Scrub to nearby crops; pollution; climate change; islandisation; the spread of weeds from people’s carefully curated gardens and lawns.

I’m neither a scientist nor an ecologist; I can’t use any particular knowledge or training to save the trees or the plants or the birds on a large scale. But I can keep witnessing the Scrub: wandering through it, posting pictures of it here on my blog and my Instagram feed, sharing, in the process, the things I see and learn, the passage of the seasons, the stories I discover.

I can ensure those stories don’t go untold. That, at least, is a start.


Aldinga Scrub: February.
Above: Old man’s beard and bent tree trunk.
Below: Bracken fern, dying off in the summer heat, and grass tree spear.


Note:
For anyone who’s curious, Cunningham mentions in her essay that she has an Instagram account in which she posts a daily picture of a tree. I thought this was a splendid idea, so I searched for her account and found it here.

What it means to be free

Lately I’ve been reading about … how to write

Last year, I stopped writing. At the time, I wasn’t sure if I had stopped writing forever, or if it was just for a while. In my heart, I was convinced it was forever. I felt sad, but also strangely certain. I felt, very strongly, that I had come to the end of the writing I could do, and that I had to learn to let go. To move on.

A few months later, I lost my job as the Senior Editor at a university press. I felt far less sanguine about losing my job than I did about stopping writing, because it wasn’t my decision. And because I loved my job. And because I didn’t know what I would do next, or how I would earn an income. If I’m honest, I still feel all of those things now. I still don’t know what will come next.

But for now, I’m taking a break; I’m not actively job-seeking. I’ve been spending my time building a website to set myself up as a freelance editor, and … I’ve been writing again, working on an old manuscript that I thought I had abandoned forever, and feeling — at least sometimes — as though I might actually, one day, be able to finish it.

Look up. Let go. Move on.

I feel freer now to write than I did last year, or indeed than I did during the years preceding that. I don’t know why this is, except that, without the regular schedule of getting up and going to work four or five days a week, without the commitment to a tiring and demanding (though rewarding) job, my mind feels clear. And the clarity gives me courage. I feel brave enough, suddenly, to take a risk again in the creative sphere, to take the risk of failing.

Because I see now, though I didn’t see it last year when I was still deeply enmeshed in my work, that my fear of failing as a writer had, in the last few years, grown very strong. It had become, at least as far as writing was concerned, incapacitating.

It’s true that not all hardworking writers publish. Often the circumstances that drive the industry are out of our control. But the willingness to write through what might seem to be an unending succession of drafts — however you define “draft” — is one factor that you can control.

From ‘What if All Writing is Just Drafts, Forever?’
by Joseph Scapellato
At The Literary Hub

One of the things that’s so tricky about writing is that there are no rules, no surefire ways to creative success. Some writers write every day, without fail, setting themselves a target (whether that’s a word count, or a certain number of hours they spend at their desk, or a publishing deadline). They write draft after draft, like Joseph Scapellato in the passage I’ve quoted above (which you can read in its entirety here), and in doing so they find a way through to the other end: to the finished book.

But, like Heather Havrilesky in the passage I’ve quoted below (which you can read here), other writers approach writing in a less disciplined way, determined to seek only the joy, only the moments of flow.

Why is my routine so messy, random, and kind of lazy? It’s because I don’t force it anymore. I feel like my brain now knows that I don’t actually have to work that much, I just have be in front of my computer for those times when everything is flowing and it’s possible to hit that high note. I’m not going to torture myself the rest of the time.

From an interview with Heather Havrilesky
At Extraordinary Routines

Clearly, there is no one, right path that every writer must go down in order to write a book. What wasn’t clear to me until very recently, though, is that there isn’t even one, right path that an individual writer must go down in order to write a book. The process, at least for me, this particular individual writer, is a learning one. It changes with the book you’re writing, and with the years, and with the state of your (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) health.

I still don’t know whether I’ll finish writing the book I’m currently writing, which I began so many years ago. Even if I do finish it, I still don’t know if it will be publishable. But for now, I’m grateful to be experiencing a feeling of freedom again, the freedom to be myself, whatever that means, to write because I want to write, without becoming enmeshed in either hope or despair.