Chasing clouds

It was the week of daffodils, and they were everywhere — outside everyone’s fences and shrubs, jubilant. It was that perfect running weather: cool and damp, still a little cloudy over the water.

From ‘Alternative Remedies for Loss’
by Joanna Cantor

The photos in today’s post come from a run I went on in early October, a muggy, warm, cloudy spring day, perfect for running, though different from the conditions Cantor describes above.

It was also the Monday of the October long weekend, as well as the first weekend of the school holidays, so the jetties at Semaphore and Largs Bay were jostling with people, and kids paddled and squealed in the water. Dogs dashed about on the shore, chasing balls.

This year, oddly, the usual swathes of variable groundsel flowers didn’t appear on the dunes around Taperoo and Largs Bay, though they did dot the dunes at Aldinga, further south. But the pigface plants blossomed as usual, their astonishing purple brightness undimmed by the cloudy sky above.

On the way home, I left the beach by a path I don’t usually take, and found this array of beach-thongs dotting the fence post, which brought a smile to my face:

Whatever your definition of perfect running weather, I’m pretty certain that any day on which you finish up your run with a smile comes close to perfect, regardless!

Grey

Other people’s words about … the sea

He opened the window and let in the ocean, gulped in that grey air as though oxygen was enough to save him from the people in the house, watched the waves, noted the dark rip forming at the southern end of the beach. He ignored the sound of Charlie’s voice in the lounge, hilarious, oblivious, the sounds of the girl in the bathroom behind him, scrubbing insistently; called to mind the tentacles of the cloud from earlier, saw the colours he’d mix [if he were to paint it], the strokes, the shapes. After a few moments, his breathing slowed and he began to enter the place where no one else could come.

From ‘Bluebottle
by Belinda Castles

Like Jack in the quote above, sometimes I find that the best cure, the only cure, for my day’s woes is a few deep breaths of fresh ocean air. That’s why I live so close to the sea, just a few minutes’ walk away.

The kind of seaside scene Castles describes in the passage above isn’t your stereotypical calm blue seas and white sands and warm, soft air. No, it’s a grey day, a wild day, an ominous day, heralding the end of summer. And yet it save[s] Jack, all the same.

When I took the beachside photos you see in this post, just a few weeks ago, the air was grey, just as it is for Jack as he looks out of his bedroom window onto the beach scene below. But in my case, the greyness came from a winter fog rather than a summer storm. This was a thick, dank, spectral fog that hung over the ocean for half an hour or so and then drifted away again.

And, like Jack, I gulped in that grey air and let the rest of my day fade away — and felt all the better for it.

Out & about: enough

‘When you’re walking the view shifts and changes.
Walking’s a form of hope.’

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

Some days, after work, I don’t have time to go for the kind of walk that the passage above, which I quote on this blog so often, describes: a long walk, a wandering walk, a wondering walk. Some days there just aren’t enough hours of daylight left — not for that kind of walk.

There might be a few moments, though — just enough moments to dash down the road and glimpse a dark swathe of clouds in the sky —

— or the branches of a sheoak tree silhouetted against cotton-pink clouds —

— or a sea turned opal.

Beacons to guide the ships home

The day I took the photos in this post was one of those days. All I had left of that day were those few moments — the last few moments of the day. So I told myself that they were enough, those few moments.

And for a few moments they were. They really were.

On purpose

Other people’s words about … meaning

Some people … believe they have to find their purpose to live fully … [But] it is perfectly fine — and in fact recommended — to simply live each of your moments fully and marvel at it all. What if that is your purpose?

From ‘The Energy Guide
by Dr Libby Weaver

I am not much one for self-help books, these days, especially ones that focus on how to find happiness or health. I don’t think — as I did when I was younger, as young people so often do — that health and happiness are things you can seek out or earn, or that they are things you can, or should, feel entitled to.

But I do like Libby Weaver’s words here, even though her book falls squarely into that category of books I’ve just derided. I like her words because what else does it make sense to do other than to simply live each of your moments fully, no matter what each of those moments is like, or what is happening during it? What better thing can we do as we live out our days than marvel at it all?

Weaver goes on to say:

Consider that the real purpose of anyone’s life is to be fully involved in living. Be present for the journey. Act on what you care about.

You could call the attitude Weaver is advocating mindful, if you so chose. Or you could call it sensible. Or humble. Or grateful. Whatever you call it, I think it’s an attitude worth cultivating.

Winter sunrise: be present.

Because unlike health and happiness, unlike riches and freedom, unlike love and success, unlike youth and beauty, unlike wisdom and intelligence, being fully involved in living is achievable. It’s not always easy, but it’s possible.

And that, I think, is a good place to start.

Chasing clouds

Running affords the freedom of distance, coupled with the literary appeal of solitude. There’s a meditative cadence to the union of measured breaths and metered strides. Writers and runners both operate on linear planes,
and the running writer soon realises [that] the relationship between art and sport is a mutually beneficial one.’

From ‘Why Writers Run’
by Nick Ripatrazone
in The Atlantic

I’d heard about the connection between writing and running before — or at least about certain writers, like Joyce Carol Oates and Haruki Murakami, who run as well as write, and who believe that their running helps their writing. And I’d always understood the connection instinctively, though I don’t think I could have put it into words as Ripatrazone does (fairly baldly and glibly in some spots, it must be said) in his piece for The Atlantic, which I’ve quoted throughout this post.

Running, the argument goes, clears the mind. Writers stuck on a sentence should lace their sneakers and go for a jog, knowing that when they return, they will be a bit sweatier, more tired, but often more charged to run with their words. This is Ripatrazone’s advice, at any rate.

While I would quibble with any shoulds when it comes to either running or writing — what works for some people won’t work for others; and one person’s meditative jog is another person’s sweaty, heart-pounding, back-spasming nightmare — Ripatrazone also has this to say, which I love:

Writing exists in that odd mental space between imagination and intellect, between the organic and the planned. Runners must learn to accept the same paradoxes, to realise that each individual run has its own narrative,
with twists and turns and strains.’

I’ve been struggling for some time to articulate why writing became such a tortured process for me over the last couple of years, and, equally, why I turned to running around this time with such joy. I knew that when I ran I felt a sense of clarity that I don’t otherwise feel; but still, I didn’t think the two things were connected — especially since, not long after I began to run again regularly, I made the decision to stop writing altogether, at least for now.

Now, though, reading Ripatrazone’s words, I wonder if it was that odd mental space … between the organic and the planned that running creates in me that allowed me to stop writing.

The only way I can explain this is to tell the story behind the pictures in today’s post, which I took on a short, gentle run in late July, after a particularly torrid day at work. I’d got home just in time to change into my running clothes and make it onto the beach before the sun set. Once there, I ran in a northwesterly direction, with the sun ahead of me rather than at my back. And at the halfway point, at the breakwater, I stopped.

I stopped.

I stopped.

I took these photos, and I breathed in, and I felt the lowering sun on my skin, and I felt everything inside of me, finally, stop.

This, I think, is what running does for me: it allows me to stop. It brings me into a kind of stillness I don’t feel at any other time. Running, stopping, finding stillness: to say that these things are intimately connected with each other seems a contradiction in terms. But perhaps it’s not, because something shifted inside of me when I took up running again last year: I felt it almost immediately. That shift was what allowed me to stop writing, which was something — I see now — I had to do, in order to move forward in my life: and to move forward, also, in my writing (again, that contradiction in terms).

Perhaps, in the end, Ripatrazone puts it better than me — not in his clichéd injunction to writers to run in order to improve their writing, but in his description of the paradoxes that both writers and runners must face.

In any case, on the day that I’m speaking of, the day that I took these photos, once I had stopped for a while to breathe in, and to look about, and to rest, I knew that I was ready to move again. And so I ran home, with the sun sinking into the sea behind me and the air gradually chilling, and a sense of stillness all about me, and also inside of me.

Deep, deep inside.

Chasing clouds

‘It took me years to see that path and to find my pace.
When I finally got moving, I hoped I might be able to run forever.’

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

We’ve had an unusually dry, cold winter in South Australia this year — the driest, I heard recently, since the mid-1960s — and so the days in the last few weeks have been mostly clear and crisp. Global warming and environmental concerns aside, I love this weather.

And here’s a first — I have even grown to love the short days this year!

Sunrise, bird, tree.

Some mornings, I get up around 6 am, and go for a run before work, as the sun rises. Running before breakfast, I’ve discovered, is a completely different beast from running later in the day: sleepy and not yet well-fed, I run more slowly (which may not seem possible, but apparently is) but also somehow more smoothly. It is as though the calm of the night, the deep, rhythmic breathing of sleep, still hang over me. I feel light, buoyant, in my body and in my mind, as though I’m still moving through my dreams. My joints are loose and easy, and the exertion of the run seems somehow separate from me, not part of the dream I’m in.

Meanwhile, as I run along the esplanade path or by the shore, the sky grows rosy to the landward east; and the sea turns from silver, to grey, to blue, to the west; and the scent of the sand drifts up to me, filled with chill and damp; and sometimes a sliver of moon hangs above the tops of the pine trees lining the coast.

And I know that I’m awake. Alive. Grateful to be here.

Big

Other people’s words about … sunsets

The sun was setting. There were plenty of natural phenomena that went unrecognised (snowflakes kissing a windowsill, fingernails dug into the skin of a tangerine), but Cameron could see why people made such a big deal of sunsets. The sunset at Pine Ridge Point always made Cameron feel so disastrously human, caged inside his own susceptible self.

From ‘Girl in Snow
by Danya Kukafka

I found Danya Kukafka’s words in the passage above very poignant — although when I watch the sun set, I feel, unlike her character Cameron, as though I am escaping the cage of my susceptible [human] self to join with the rest of the natural world.

For me, both the sense of bigness, and the sense of being a tiny part of that bigness, make me feel at once grounded and free. Perhaps some of the photos below, which I took on a number of evenings this past January and February, might give you that sense, too?

On labour

Other people’s words about … loneliness

Dad’s dying had been like a long labor, the work mostly his, but the experience for me was as profound, as isolating, as the labor of birth. For weeks after my son was delivered, I remember, I was stunned by it — by what I’d gone through, by how alone with it I’d felt, by how astonished I was by it, and by how isolating that astonishment was. Others held my son, admired him. They saw him simply as a big healthy baby. But when I looked at him, part of what I saw and felt was how he’d come to me, that long solitary labor, the amazing combination of agony and release that I felt I could explain to no one else. And in some nearly parallel way, this is what I felt about my father’s death. It was what I returned to frequently, it was privately where I lived, for a long time after it was over.

From ‘The Story of My Father
by Sue Miller

Let me start by explaining (hastily!) that the affinity I feel with the words in the quote above is not because I’ve ever given birth (I have not). Nor, more importantly, is it because I’ve recently experienced the death of anyone close to me, let alone my father, who is a strong, healthy, happy man whose company I hope to enjoy for many years to come. No, not at all.

I am a big fan of Sue Miller’s writing. What I most like is her attention to detail, her scrupulous examination of people’s inner workings — their thoughts, their feelings, their individual senses and perceptions — and the way she then builds on these ‘small’ things to make ‘big’ stories from them. A writer friend of mine who isn’t a fan of Miller’s books once said to me that she feels ‘dead inside’ when she reads a Miller novel. And I get that, actually. I think, in fact, that what my friend dislikes about Miller’s writing is exactly what I like: the precision, the detail, the refusal to hurry over anything, or to be swayed by sentiment or affection or a need for resolution for her characters.

I’ve explored loneliness and isolation a lot in my posts on this blog, but I thought the theme was worth returning to because of Miller’s words here. I was stunned by it, she says of giving birth, by how astonished I was by it, and by how isolating that astonishment was. This, for me, distils the experience of living itself, the realisation that each experience we have, however great or small, however joyful or devastating, is an experience we feel we [can] explain to no one else.

In the last couple of years, whenever I’ve experienced bouts of unwellness or anxiety (or both, combined) that have left me feeling isolated at home, struggling to go out, struggling to get to work or to catch up with people I love, I have found myself, afterwards, return[ing] to those experiences repeatedly in my mind; I have found that those times of illness were, for a while, privately where I lived.

Miller’s use of the word labor here refers only to giving birth, but the passage applies to other things, too, if you reframe it: to the labour of living, of loneliness — yes, to that astonishing labour.

And yet, still, it is worth labouring on.

Snatched phrases: stolen

‘[I] saw a squawking flash of cockatoos
go reeling and wheeling into the sky.
The soft secret underside of their wings,
so close, so tender.’

From ‘Skylarking’
by Kate Mildenhall

 

I was standing at the bus-stop the other day on my way to work when an odd commotion across the road caught my eye. A car had driven past, fast, and something had got caught up in the passage of its passing: something grey and small and warm and moving, something that gave the impression of flight, of flurrying. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, although subconsciously I registered feathers, but after the car had sped past, I saw that it was a small bird. In my memory I replayed what had just happened and this time, in my mind, I saw it: the bird had swooped down from the branch of a tree overlooking the street, but somehow it had mistimed its dive, and so it had got caught up in the passage of the car. Got hit, is what I mean.

The dove — that’s what it was, I saw: one of those spotted turtle doves with the iridescent sheen on their neck and the rash of white spots over a patch of purest black — had landed, after its collision with the car, on the ground in the middle of the far lane. Now the wind was playing with its feathers a little, and I saw the dove try get up on its legs but then fall back down again. It was young, not quite fully grown. I glanced around me, at my fellow commuters waiting at the bus-stop, but though I saw people looking, though I saw them seeing what I was seeing, no-one moved.

And so I ran out onto the road before the next car came past and crouched down beside the dove. I looked down at it, hesitating, and then I whispered to it, because I felt I should, I’m just going to pick you up and get you out of the way of all these cars; and then I reached for it and clasped it between my hands. I could feel its heart beating inside my two hands, and the warmth beneath its feathers, and I could feel it trying to gather itself and flap its wings to free itself from me; it didn’t want me to hold it, not at all. But it was too small or injured to shrug itself free and so I held it gently and lifted it and crossed to the far side of the road, opposite the bus-stop, and then I set it down on the footpath, there out of reach of the traffic.

Once I had put the dove down I crouched down beside it a moment on the footpath, watching it. I said to the bird, You’re safe now, and then it blinked — only it wasn’t a blink, not really. Its eyelid came down far too slowly, like a shutter, in a kind of world-weary exhaustion; and then its eyelid opened again, also too slowly. I could swear it had let out a little sigh as it blinked, although birds don’t sigh, do they? After that, it went utterly still. When I glanced across the road at the bus-stop, no-one was looking my way anymore; everyone was busy with their phones and their handbags and their earbuds. After a moment I stood up and walked back across the road and waited with them at the bus-stop. Five minutes later the bus arrived, and still no-one had spoken, and still the bird hadn’t moved from the place where I had set it to rest on the footpath.

I thought as I sat on the bus that the dove had died: that perhaps the shock of me lifting it up had added a final trauma to its day and its heart had stopped right then, as I crouched by it on the footpath and whispered to it, trying to comfort it. I thought about that all the way to work, and then I tried not to think about it anymore.

Doves are a dime a dozen, and there was nothing more I could have done, I guess, but still I felt sad. It was the intimacy of that moment, I think: feeling the secret beat of the dove’s heart between my hands, the warmth of its soft chest against my palm. I felt, perhaps, the way the narrator does in the passage above, as she observes the cockatoos in the sky, seeing the soft secret underside of their wings. It was the stolen, fleeting nature of the moment between the dove and me, tinged further with the thought that I hadn’t helped, and maybe — just maybe — I had made the dove’s last moments worse, not better.

When I got off at the bus-stop that evening, on my way home from work, I saw to my surprise and my slow delight that the body of the bird wasn’t there as I had expected it to be, cold and long dead. There were no feathers there, either, no signs of blood or injury or scuffle.

And I think now — I truly think — that when I set down the bird on the footpath and it let out that terrible not-sigh, it was in shock, but it was essentially uninjured; and so afterwards — after it had recovered from its shock — it got up and it flew away to safety.

That’s what I think.

Another world

Other people’s words about … Cairo

Sunlight was streaming through the shutters. I peered down into the street where a cat was sunbathing on a parked car. Friday morning was always the most peaceful time of the week in Istanbul Street. The doorman’s wife sat on the kerb watching her ragged child play in the clouds of pollen and dust. [My weekend away from Cairo] seemed a world away, a movie I watched last year. Cairo is so encompassing that when you are there all other realities seem to fade away. I thought of Hatton Garden and it seemed surreal that at that very moment crowds of London commuters were heading to work in the rain. It felt impossible that the two places could exist at the same time.

From ‘Playing Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City
by Hugh Miles

Many years ago, in another life, I spent about six months living in Cairo. I had happened there by chance, at the suggestion of my boyfriend at the time, who spoke a smattering of Arabic. We lived in the centre of the city, away from the ex-pat community, in a dusty fourth-floor apartment with faded red velvet sofas that gave off great puffs of dust whenever one of us sat down on them. At night, when we switched on the lights in the darkened bedroom, there was the sound of a thousand cockroaches scuttling out of view. The view from the rickety balcony was of life on the street below: the storekeeper of the small general store where we bought bottled water, washing down his front doorstep with water and a broom; the ta’ameya man at his food stand, stirring his big metal spoon through a great dented tin bowl of smoking hot oil.

I left Cairo as I came to it — by chance, at someone else’s bidding. I knew even then that I would never go back. For those few months in Cairo, I had not lived as a tourist, as most Westerner visitors do. Not exactly. Not quite. Cairo was in me, and on me, in a very physical, a very literal, sense: its grime lay in thick strips of black beneath my fingernails; its dust coated my skin. The city had, for those few months, as Hugh Miles so succinctly puts it, encompassed me.

And so I left, and I did not go back.

I found some old photos from that time recently, ones I took with an old camera, in those pre-digital years. I don’t have a scanner and so in order to reproduce them here, I actually used my camera to rephotograph those photographs. This accounts for their odd, slightly removed, unreal aspect — for, as well as Cairo in these pictures, you can see the glare from my window right here in Australia, the bend in the photographic paper.

I was going to apologise for this, originally. And then it occurred to me that in fact, this aspect of distance and remove is exactly right. In this context, it is right.

And so, no apologies today — just a glimpse into another world, a very long way away from here and from now.