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

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 …

Because we can

Other people’s words about … making myths

Women who run: women with disabilities, fat women, women who’ve recovered from physical injuries, trans women, migrant women, Indigenous women, depressed women, women with no time, women with no kids, women ladies of leisure, schoolgirls, retirees, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, queer women, straight women, slow women. Scrutinise any one of these categories and a set of stories that defy generalisation will emerge, stories that destabilise the big stupid myths that say women can’t run, that only certain kinds of women can run, that it’s too dangerous, that it’s unfeminine, that it’s a sign of trouble.

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

Next week, I start a new job in a new workplace. It’s been nine months since I had a salaried job, and though I’ve enjoyed the challenge of working as a freelance editor — and though I don’t plan to stop freelance editing any time soon, despite my new job, because my new job is part-time and therefore will allow me to continue freelance editing on a similar part-time basis — I feel both relieved and blessed to be returning to the salaried work force. At forty-nine, I am willing to admit that job security and a regular income is important to me. I knew this when I began freelancing. I know it even more deeply now, nine months later.

Winter sunset

I took some of the photos that you see in today’s post over the last few weeks, while I was out walking or running around my local neighbourhood. Running for me isn’t so much about, as Catriona Menzies-Pike puts it in the passage I’ve quoted above, destabilis[ing] the big stupid myths that say women can’t run: it’s more about destabilising my own personal, stupid myths about myself, one of which, for many years, was that I wasn’t an athlete, I wasn’t strong, and I couldn’t run.

Deep blue sky

In fact, some of the stories I’ve told myself all my life are true. I’ll never be an athlete. I’ll never be strong, physically or mentally. But I do continue to run, and continuing to run continues to make me feel good.

Spring flowers in the Scrub

No matter how slowly I run some days — no matter how old or stiff or sad or achey I feel when I’m running — and no matter whether I have a stable, salaried income or an unstable, freelance income, I run. Not far, and not fast, it’s true.

Nonetheless.

I run, not just because it makes me feel good, but because I can.

Hole in the sky

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Under big skies

Other people’s words about … the moon over the sea

He lay across the bed on top of the bedspread [in his room in the cottage by the sea]. Moon shadows of trees outside fell against the pine-based walls. The bedspread was tinged a bluish white, its pattern of roses transformed to a lunar landscape. He had forgotten about the particular lustre of a seaward moon. How when a moon hung over the ocean they were not separate entities, but a third element fused from their continuous correspondence. The planks of the cottage walls appeared fastened together by this faint glow.

From ‘The Dependents’
by Katharine Dion

I love Katharine Dion’s description, here, of the moon hanging over the sea. Years ago, when I worked the late shift, I used to drive home afterwards to our beach shack south of the city. The drive took me just under an hour, and by the time I turned off the main road onto the esplanade, it would be nearly midnight. From my car, I could see the beach beyond the cliffs, the waves rolling in to meet the shore and then falling back. The water was the colour of black ink, and on clear nights the moon hung above it in just the way Dion describes: as though it was connected to the ocean, as though the two were in communication with each other.

I would turn off the esplanade onto our own road feeling freed of the shift I’d just worked, returned to the life I wanted to live, by the ocean, under big skies.

Evening skies

I haven’t worked the late shift for years now, but I still feel the same gratitude for the house where I live, for the ocean at the end of the road, for the moon and the sun and the sky over the water, which I see every night and every day.

Every night. Every day.

The ocean at the end of the road

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Betrayed

Other people’s words about … anxiety

It took me years to work out that what the experts tell you isn’t always right, no matter how expert they may be, nor how much you may have paid them to tell you what they’ve told you. Fiona Wright explores this theme in the passage below, in relation to her own experience of searching for a cure for her anxiety — a cure that the experts she has consulted have not, despite their expertise, as yet been able to help her find.

This was not supposed to be the lesson that I learnt, she writes. And that, right there, is the power that those so-called experts can hold over us: that they can make us feel that way; that we can come to believe, from them, that there is a lesson — one particular lesson and no other — that we are supposed to learn.

It’s enough, I think, to struggle with poor health, mental or physical or both, without also coming to feel a failure for not responding to the treatment or advice that the experts offer us. Betrayal is the word Wright uses — a strong word, but it is apt.

This feeling, I was right to be nervous, is to me the worst of all the things I think and feel out of anxiety, at least in part because it feels like a cruel joke. Clinical psychologists insist that the problem with anxiety is that the anxiousness — that tension in the gut and shoulders, the clamped jaw and cramping rib cage, the wildly circulating thinking and breathless panic — is always disproportionate, always misplaced; that the fear itself, that is, is always worse than the thing that makes us afraid. And so the treatment focuses on exposure, on deliberately coming into contact with the things we fear and then coming out the other side unscathed in order to learn the hollowness of the focus (and locus) of our fear. So when I get this feeling — I was right to be nervous — it always feels like a betrayal: this was not supposed to be the lesson that I learnt.

From ‘A Regular Choreography
in ‘The World was Whole’
by Fiona Wright

Wildly circulating

Note:
Fiona Wright is an Australian poet and writer. In her essays, she writes with candid, almost forensic insight into her experience of living with chronic physical and mental illness. You can read more of her work here.

This is my work

Other people’s words about … the sea

Vale, Mary Oliver. I’m not a fan of all of her work — not by a long shot — but I do love the way she observed and wrote about nature: intimately, intricately, affectionately, quietly, humbly.

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

I Go Down to the Shore
by Mary Oliver

That lovely voice

The sea, breathing

Other people’s words about … the sea at night

I take many photos of the sea during daylight hours, but my photography skills aren’t good enough to capture the sea at night. Some nights, though, when the wind is westerly, blowing from the ocean onto the land, I can hear the waves, through the open windows of my house, as they roll into the beach and fall back, roll in and fall back.

It’s a dreamy, dreamy sound.

The night garden was thick with dreams. Beneath the earth, beneath the eyelids of birds, in the air that came like an exhalation from the sea. Pearl listened. It always felt closer at night, the slump and hiss of waves like an old man dreaming.

From ‘Shell
by Kristina Olsson

The slump and hiss of waves

.

Raw

Other people’s words about … making art

What is it that makes some artists productive all their lives, while others founder at the slightest hurdle, convinced of their own lack of talent? Are those who continue to produce art more gifted? Or are they simply more certain of themselves?

But perhaps her ambition outweighed her abilities, or else her perfectionist’s unappeasable eye scuttled what talent she had, for at art college she soon discovered she was no longer the best student — and indeed could not even capture the attention of her teachers … She was full of self-doubt, forced to recognise that a modicum of talent got you so far and no further, and that while she had imagined she was climbing the mountain, in truth she was only ever at the bottom.

From ‘The Landing
by Susan Johnson

A long time ago, just after I had had my second novel for young adults published, I talked with a woman who had just had her own first novel published. She told me that the thing she worried about most, as a writer, was that she would run out of time. She had so many more novels inside of her, she told me: so many ideas. What if she didn’t live long enough to write them all down?

I wonder now: was it an awareness of her own talent that enabled my writer friend to ask this question, or was it simply self-confidence? I don’t know. What I do know is that this was ten years ago, and she has written and published several more novels since then, and time does not appear to be running out for her. Not at all.

She made one last, honourable effort to become a full-time artist, but nothing she made satisfied her, nothing seemed original or bold or magnificent enough, everything was only half good. She strove for an aesthetic perfection she could never reach, and every day she did not reach it was a misery, the febrile pressure she placed on herself impossible to bear. She could not transfer to the canvas the perfect illuminated world inside her head; she was her own harshest critic and could not accept work she knew was not first rate. In the end, art had to be wonderful or nothing; there was no in between.

Perhaps an artist’s talent will wither away and die unless she nourishes it with a certain, requisite amount of self-confidence. Or perhaps her productivity has more to do with her courage and fortitude — with her dogged determination to carry on, free of caring — as Penny, the character about whom Susan Johnson is writing in the passages I’ve quoted in today’s post, finally discovers.

And Penny will pick up her paintbrush in an ecstasy of release … [S]he will try to make whatever she is making, imperfectly and full of mistakes. She will take long-service leave; not certain what she is going to do with what remains of her life, but certain she is making something manifest, exploiting to the best of her abilities — or the worst! — her raw materials. She is herself, no-one finer. She might travel, or she might not; her project might come to something, or it might not, but, suddenly, she will be free of caring. She will see how far she can take a line for a walk.

Perfect illuminated world

Tip your head back and look up at the sky

Other people’s words about … the sky

Axel … breathed out, trying for calm. He tipped his head back, looked at the sky, wide and empty of trouble. His heart slowed. The moment passed.

From ‘Shell
by Kristina Olsson

Oh, that beautiful sky …