Outside

Other people’s words about … the beach

Outside the air is thinner and the sky is bruised with angry storm clouds. She inches her way down the verge, relieved to escape [from the hall], and her breathing eases. She scans the beach: to her right is a shoulder of cliff that juts out into the sea, and to the left is a long worm of bleached sand, with a huddle of stick men on it. Two of the men break away from the pack and walk along the empty beach towards her, while the others clamber over the dunes to a dozen cars parked haphazardly on the roadside. Applause wafts out of the hall and needles of warm rain pick down. She looks harder at the breakaway pair, their heads bowed in conversation …

The wind sighs and seawater sprays [her face].

From ‘The Unforgotten’
by Laura Powell

I read the passage I’ve quoted above just 24 hours before the Premier of South Australia announced a statewide lockdown for the next six days, aimed at preventing a rise in the small, but rapidly increasing and highly infectious, number of cases of COVID-19 that have been detected in South Australia in the last week. At the time I was reading that passage, most South Australians were expecting some kind of restrictions to be imposed soon, but I think we were all taken by surprise by the particular conditions of our lockdown when it was announced, and by the speed with which those conditions were imposed. The very next day — today — we were in lockdown.

Clifftop view, ten days before restrictions were imposed.

Six days is not a long time in the scheme of things, and I understand and respect the reasoning behind our lockdown. Still, the restrictions here for those six days are more severe than any restrictions imposed at any other time this year in any other state in Australia. One person in each household is allowed to leave the house (preferably masked) once a day, to get essential medical items and groceries. Essential workers are also allowed to leave the house (preferably masked) to go to work. No businesses, other than essential businesses (supermarkets, grocery stores, post offices, banks, and — though what this says about our culture, I dread to think — bottle shops) are allowed to operate. Other than that, South Australians are instructed not to leave the house at all, even to exercise. Even to walk their dog.

Bush view, the week before restrictions were imposed.

The restrictions were announced at midday yesterday, and they came into effect at midnight the same day. I finished work at five o’clock, and all I could think to do, once I got home from the office, was to walk down the road for one last wander along the beach before the sun sank. Before midnight came.

I wondered if the beach would be filled with last-minute crowds: I had heard that the shops were. But when I reached the beach, there were no more people than usual. It was a warm, still, muggy afternoon. A woman swam past me, doing breaststroke, heading northwards towards the breakwater, her stroke slow but steady and strong. A couple in their thirties walked by, and I heard the man say to the woman, very articulately, ‘I’m sorry. I’m not always able to articulate myself when I’m … ‘ But then, as they walked on, his voice faded, so that I was left wondering what kind of argument they’d just had, and whether it was lockdown-related or not. A grey-haired man jogged near the shore, with his old, stiff-hipped dog trotting a couple of metres behind him, off-leash. They were in perfect accord, this man and his dog: each time the man turned his head to check on his dog, his dog looked up at him and then trotted on steadily towards him.

There was nothing special or eventful about the beach that afternoon, except that I knew that it would be my last afternoon there for at least six days. Other than that, it was just an ordinary afternoon, the kind of ordinary afternoon on the beach that Laura Powell describes in the passage I’ve quoted above. I tried to work out what I was feeling, and then I gave up and just concentrated, instead, on enjoying the moment for whatever it gave me: the warm air, the sultry clouds, the faintly orange horizon, the silvering sea.

Beach view, a few hours before restrictions were imposed.

I don’t know what lies ahead of us — not just for the next six days, but also for the days and weeks after that. Perhaps the restrictions will ease, if the spread of the virus slows down; otherwise, the restrictions are likely to continue. It’s best not to think too far ahead for now, I guess. I am, besides, grateful to live in a country, and a state, where our leaders take our health seriously; and, on a smaller, more personal scale, I’m grateful to live in a place where I know that the beach lies just down the end of the road — even if I can’t go there for the moment.

I’ll be back there soon. We all will be.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Just one link for today, but it’s relevant, I think:

Cage

Other people’s words about … words

Sometimes at the birth and death of a day, the opal sky is no colour we have words for, the gold shading into blue without the intervening green that is halfway between those colours, the fiery warm colours that are not apricot or crimson or gold, the light morphing second by second so that the sky is more shades of blue than you can count as it fades from where the sun is to the far side where other colours are happening. If you look away for a moment you miss a shade for which there will never be a term, and it is transformed into another and another. The names of the colours are sometimes cages containing what doesn’t belong there, and this is often true of language generally, of the words like woman, man, child, adult, safe, strong, free, true, black, white, rich, poor. We need the words, but use them best knowing they are containers forever spilling over and breaking open. Something is always beyond.

From ‘Recollections of My Non-Existence’
by Rebecca Solnit

In the passage I’ve quoted above, Rebecca Solnit gives a beautiful, vivid description of a sunset, a description which then morphs, somehow — in just the same way she describes the colours in the sky morphing — into a discussion about words: how we use them, how they imprison us, and how our understanding of the way that they imprison us might just set us free.

This year, perhaps even more than previous years, we need the words, as Solnit puts it, to ask ourselves questions about what is happening all around us: in the political sphere, the public health sphere, the environmental sphere. And yet, at the same time, all the words we use when we ask ourselves those very questions, when we try to make sense of this year, are nothing more than containers, cages. I can’t think, honestly, of a word that really captures what this year has been like, or what the meaning of this year might be, or how we might learn from this year so that next year isn’t the same (or worse).

I am a person who loves to read and to write, and so it seems natural to me, when I feel wordless, to equate my wordlessness with despair. But sometimes, this year, when I’ve been at my most wordless in the face of everything that is happening in the world, I have been reminded of a line by Emily Dickinson: Hope is the thing with feathers.

Hope, Dickinson writes, sings the tune without the words. Dickinson’s hope is feathered and wordless; it is an uncaged creature, a creature that is free.

I think of Dickinson’s warm, flitting hope as an antidote to everything else I’ve felt in response to this year. When I read her poem, her words set me free.

Lately I’ve been reading …

With thanks to my mother for the second and third items on this list.

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

The life ahead of you

Other people’s words about … distance

They raised their glasses. The room smelt of wine and bread and gravy, and the light was rich and dim.

Geraint didn’t answer.

‘I thought a change of scene … ‘ said Basil. ‘A long voyage on an ocean liner [to India]. Full of hopeful beautiful women,’ he added, daring.

Geraint read Kipling. He thought of the mystery of India, the jungle, the light, the colours, the creatures. The complexities of the silver dealings. The distance. He was, he saw, in need of distance. And his imagination touched on the beautiful young women sailing across dark starlit oceans in search of husbands. A journey like that made you free, made you a different man.

From ‘The Children’s Book’
by AS Byatt

Just a few weeks ago, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world we’re living in now would have seemed like something straight out of the pages of a science fiction novel. But then life changed — abruptly, shockingly — and here we are now, living out our strange, new lives. Trying to make sense of our days.

Having no words, myself, for any of this, I have spent my Easter seeking solace in other people’s words. There is no better novel I can think of that describes the kind of vast, sudden change we are experiencing right now than The Children’s Book. In it, AS Byatt chronicles the lives of the members of a family living in Edwardian England as they move, unknowingly, towards 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War … and the end of the world as they knew it.

‘I should like that, sir,’ [Geraint] said. ‘You have been very kind to me.’

Basil said, ‘It was a fortunate day for me when you came into the Bank. You are too young to be fixed by one setback. You have all your life in front of you. The world in front of you.’

Geraint set his [broken heart] against the pull of the oceans and the strange continent. He could feel his own energy stirring.

‘I know,’ he said. ‘You are right. Thank you.’

To say anything more about how Geraint’s life changes shortly after this conversation, or about how wrong Basil’s pronouncements turn out to be, would be to give away the whole, shocking point of this novel. All I will say is this: sometimes we are wrong about the world we live in, and about the lives that we believe lie ahead of us.

Sometimes, as Byatt describes, we are terribly, terribly wrong.

*

At the end of this post, I’ve listed a few of the pieces I’ve read online recently, during this strange, uneasy Easter weekend. I’ve listed them here in case you, like me, find yourself speechless right now: in case you, like me, find yourself seeking solace in other people’s words.

But there’s one other thing I want to leave you with today. This morning, I wandered into our garden — our small, messy, rambling suburban garden, which is more of a yard with some trees we planted in it, really, than a garden — and glanced up through the leaves at the sky. And there, above me, was the sun shining through, distant but warm.

I captured that moment in the photo that accompanies this post. It shows another kind of distance from the one Geraint believes he is entitled to reach out towards. It shows, I want to say, another kind of solace.

The light shining through

Lately I’ve been reading …

Chasing clouds

Other people’s words about … running

Some athletes love to talk about what a simple sport running is. They say that all you need is a pair of sneakers. That’s not true. What you need is some freedom of movement and the ability to see a clear path ahead of you. It took me years to see that path and to find my pace. When I finally got moving, I hoped I might be able to run forever.

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

After I wrote my last post here, in which I mentioned that I’d been too tired to run very much recently, I caught a cold and stopped running altogether for almost three weeks. It was probably the longest period I’ve gone without running since I took the habit up again, back in 2015, at the age of forty-five.

This past Thursday, I went for my first run since catching that cold, feeling fragile and wobbly and exhausted. I was so tired that I ran half the distance that I usually run, and I stopped at the midway point — partly to rest, partly just to soak up the wonder of being out under the sky again, with my feet thudding against the ground.

I sat on a rock looking out over the sailboats anchored in the cove, and I thanked whatever grace it is that allows me to continue to run. There are so many people who would like to run but can’t, whether because of disability or illness, injury or lack of opportunity. I remembered that I am one of the lucky ones: that it is my great good fortune and privilege to be able to run, however slow my pace, however short my distance.

I took the photographs in today’s post as I was sitting on those rocks, midway through that run. It was a short, tiring, exhausting, feeble run, and it left me feeling both humbled and blessed.

And that is what I love most about this privileged pursuit of mine: the gratitude it feels me with. The joy that it brings.

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 …

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.

Fleeting

Other people’s words about … happiness

Happiness doesn’t come in the way I expected; not a massing of good things over time, but a succession of small, strange and unowned moments — the sun makes a hot oblong on the bedroom floor and I stand in it with my eyes closed. The coriander germinates in the window box and up comes the seedling. The bled radiators stop knocking at night.

From ‘Dear Thief
by Samantha Harvey

I thought it was apt to write a post on happiness today, to accompany my previous post on sadness — though perhaps both posts are, after all, about the same thing, simply taken from opposing perspectives.

But also it seemed apt to me to write a post about happiness because today’s post, I think, will be my last post, at least on this blog, twenty-one words.

Over the years, I’ve written about many things on this blog — the sea, the sky, vomiting, writing, books, therapy, running, walking, travel, birds, flowers, hope, to name a few. But in many ways, I see, looking back, that I’ve been exploring, post by post, what it means to live a small life in the happiest, or at least the most meaningful and most humble, way I know.

Happiness, as Harvey says, isn’t something you can accumulate or amass; it most surely isn’t something you can own. It flits into our lives and out again. Writing this blog has been, for me, both a meaningful and a humbling experience — and in that sense it has been a happy experience for me, too. I don’t know if my posts have brought you, my readers, any moments of happiness, but I hope so: I do.

I spent over half my life waiting for the accumulation of happiness and then I realised that it doesn’t accumulate at all, it just occurs here and there, like snow that falls and never settles. Not the drifts that you and I imagined we would plough ourselves into, but instead gently, opportunistically, holding one’s tongue out to catch the flakes.

I’m not sure yet whether I’ll leave this blog up for posterity (i.e. for a little while!) or whether I’ll take it down altogether, or whether, perhaps, I’ll change its privacy settings so that you can only access it by contacting me first. (Please feel free to do that, if it’s what I do.)

In the meantime, I’ll go on running and walking and hoping and reading and looking, looking, looking.

I’m still on Instagram and post there regularly — mostly photos of the beach and of nature (no selfies, I promise!). Please feel free to hop on over and join me there if you’d like.

Fleeting

Thank you to everyone who’s read this blog. Take care of yourselves. Keep reading and looking. Keep savouring those fleeting moments of happiness, whenever they come your way.

This day, and the next, and the next

Other people’s words about … the vastness of the ocean

For every day went ahead like a ferry on its cables, from one shore to the other, passing on its route those same red buoys tasked with breaking up the water’s monopoly on vastness, making it measurable, and in so doing giving a false impression of control.

From ‘Flights
by Olga Tokarczuk
(translated by Jennifer Croft)

A false impression of control:
breakwater in the foreground and a line of buoys on the horizon …