Mantra

Other people’s words about … language

I watched them walk down the steps, [and then I] turned around in the hallway, and heard myself say, ‘I’m so lonely’. It shook me because this sentence had become an involuntary verbal tic. I seldom realised I was saying it or perhaps didn’t know that I was speaking the words out loud. I had started to experience this unbidden mantra even while I was still married, mumbling it before sleep, in the bathroom, or even at the grocery store, but it had become more pronounced in the last year. My father had it with my mother’s name. While he was sitting alone in a chair, before he dozed off, and later, in his room at the nursing home, he would utter Marit over and over. He did it sometimes when she was within hearing distance. If she answered the call, he seemed not to know that he had spoken. That is the strangeness of language: it crosses the boundaries of the body, is at once inside and outside, and it sometimes happens that we don’t notice the threshold has been crossed.

From ‘The Sorrows of an American’
by Siri Hustvedt

Have you ever had the same experience as Siri Hustvedt’s narrator Erik describes having in the passage I’ve quoted above — the experience, I mean, of a single phrase that comes to you frequently and (often) unbidden?

Threshold between sky and sea

Until I read this passage, I thought I was alone in this experience, although the phrase that comes to me is not the same phrase as Erik’s phrase. This phrase, my phrase, sometimes comes to me when I’m awake; and it sometimes comes to me when I’m drifting off to sleep; and it sometimes comes to me when I have a pen in my hand and am writing. The phrase, my phrase, is so familiar to me that it has written itself into my very sense of self.

Or perhaps it’s the other way around: the feeling I have when the words come to me is so strong, and so familiar, that it has formed itself into words.

Threshold between bird and world

As I’ve said many times before, I read to find accord with other people whom I will never meet in real life — either the writers themeselves, or the characters whom they create in their writing. Books are words, but they are more than words: their words cross a threshold between words and lived experience.

That, as Hustvedt herself puts it, is the strangeness of language. And, I would add, of life in this world.

Threshold between night and day

Through my own eyes

Other people’s words about … the seasons

I arrived in England on a grey March day in 2009. The Underground journey from Heathrow to Mile End took me through the western boroughs of London: tiled roofs and chimney pots in neat rows and the clouds as dark as oyster shells, rain falling from them in a barely perceptible mist. The city was exactly as I had expected to find it. Over the next weeks, daffodils bloomed, people started shedding their heavy coats, and my walk to work became greener by the day. Spring was arriving.

From ‘The Little Library Year’
by Kate Young

In ‘The Little Library Year’, a follow-up cookbook to her first cookbook, ‘The Little Library Cookbook’, Kate Young celebrates England and its seasons. Having been born in England myself, and having spent a year living there when I was nine and another year when I was fourteen, as well as having made several return visits in the first couple of decades of my adult life, I understand the joy Young finds in noting the distinctions between each of the seasons in England: the astonishing green of new growth in spring; the long, balmy days of summer; the crisp mornings and falling leaves of autumn; the bleak, dark, short days of winter.

First week of June: Groundsel flowers on the dune, Taperoo Beach

But unlike Young, I feel more attuned to the seasons in my adopted home country, Australia, which I moved to when I was three years old: the country I will, by choice, live in for the rest of my life. The statement that the seasons are less distinct here — a statement that Young is not the first person to make, let me hasten to add — troubles me. The seasons here are only less distinct if you choose to see them through Western/European eyes. If you see them through Australian eyes, and particularly through the eyes of a person indigenous to, or acutely at home with, this country, you will observe seasons that are very distinct from each other, though not in the same way as they are in England.

Last weeks of May: Grasstree in flower in the Aldinga Scrub

I’ve written a little on this before, here. While I don’t wish to repeat myself, and while I certainly don’t wish to criticise a fellow Australian writer (whose writing, and recipes, I love), I think it’s important to maintain an awareness of the lens through which we see and experience the world we live in. What we expect to see can so easily colour what we actually see.

Last week of May: High tide at Aldinga Beach at evening

This year, 2020, began in Australia with a fiercely hot summer that culminated in horrific bushfires, the kind that we have never experienced before, the kind that create their own weather system, their own tragic season of burning and death. Since then, the bushfires have gone out, at least for now, and the seasons have moved on. Here in South Australia, the heat has cooled, the days have shortened, rain has fallen, grass has turned green once more, and — particularly in the last week or so — frosts have bloomed over the land overnight.

First week of June: Winter sea under the jetty, Largs Bay

This year, in the enforced shutdown of the coronavirus pandemic, in a time when human activity has been quieter than usual, I have found myself even more aware than I usually am of the cycle of the days, the weeks, the months, the passing of the year. March, April, May and June have all been months that have been different from each other, in both subtle and distinctive ways, whether through a change in temperature, humidity, rainfall, wind direction, or the height of the sun and the moon.

First week of June: Still waters at North Haven, near the breakwater

Young writes: Throughout my first year [in England] — gloriously bright and beautiful spring, the blisteringly hot and heavy summer, the night that the leaves started to fall from the trees — I found it impossible not to be changed by the seasons. I, too, here in Australia, find it impossible not to be changed by the seasons. I am grateful to see them, and to document them with photographs like the ones that dot today’s post.

I try, always, to move through the world — my world, the one I live in — seeing it as it is. It is a lifelong project, and one I will never grow tired of.

First week of June: Lizzy the garden cat, soaking up the winter sun

Unlovely

Other people’s words about … the view from the kitchen window

The kitchen window [of the railroad flat] looked into the gray courtyard where, on better days, there would be lines of clothes baking in the sun, although the floor of the deep courtyard, even in the prettiest weather, was a junkyard and a jungle. There were rats and bedsprings and broken crates. A tangle of city-bred vegetation: a sickly tree, black vines, a long-abandoned attempt at a garden.

From ‘The Ninth Hour’
by Alice McDermott

The world can seem very unlovely sometimes, can’t it? Sometimes the unloveliness is of the kind described in the passage above, which comes from poverty and dereliction and is visible from your kitchen window. And sometimes it comes from a more spiritual kind of unloveliness: a human lack of grace.

Shafts of sunlight in the scrub

There are times when I fret and rail at the unloveliness, times when it is all I can see. And there are other times — for the space of a breath, or a second, or a minute, or an hour — when I am overwhelmed by the loveliness that surrounds me, both within people and without.

Oystercatchers on the reef

I had a week of annual leave from work last week, which I spent at our falling-down house in Aldinga. The weather was dank and damp and (yes) somewhat unlovely, and, at least partly in response, my mood veered up and down erratically.

Autumn in the vineyards

But then, over the week, because I’m on a pause in my running at the moment, I found myself seeking out my bike again, taking myself for long, hypnotic rides along the coast and through the hills and paddocks and vineyards. And all around me, amidst the dampness and dankness, there were moments of loveliness, some of which you can see pictured in today’s post.

Rainclouds over the hills

Sometimes, I think, you just have to take moments of loveliness like this and carry them with you, through the unloveliness. Sometimes it’s all you can do.

Lately I’ve been reading …

More, more, more

Other people’s words about … not being afraid

I don’t know how to explain this, except that everything in my life changed after I had children. I didn’t understand how to parent. No one really knows how to parent until they have kids but I’ve often worried that I parent scared … I didn’t know there were ways to protect the people you loved and not be fearful. Or that we don’t control very much of anything that happens anyway.

From ‘Elsey Come Home’
by Susan Conley

It might seem odd that I feel an affinity with Susan Conley’s words in the passage above, given that I’m not a parent, given that parenthood hasn’t changed my life in the way that she, as a parent, describes it having changed hers. And yet there is such a resonance for me in this passage. Conley’s words apply, I think, not just to parenthood, but to life. I’ve often worried that I parent scared, she writes — but how easy would it be to change the wording slightly? To say instead, I’ve often worried that I live scared?

Quiet skes

I’ve had a funny week this week. I’m still fretting about the way, as the lockdown stage of the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end, the quietness of our world has also, inevitably, begun to recede. There were more people in the office at work this week, more bodies squeezed into our small call centre room, more voices speaking into telephones, more colleagues speaking over each other in an effort to be heard. There were more customers in the shops, cars on the road, commuters on the trains, pedestrians in the streets, people on the beach. There was more laughter, yes, but there was also more noise. There was more of everything.

We don’t control very much of anything that happens anyway, Conley writes, and she is right: just as we had no control over the pandemic happening in the first place, so, also, we don’t have much control over its aftermath. All we can control, as always, is our response to these things.

My response is to try to teach myself to carry the quietness I felt blossom inside of me during the lockdown back into the world as it reopens. But I have to confess that this remains a work in progress. I feel as though I have to learn to retune the strings of my heart: as though, when I plucked them during the lockdown, they made music, but now, once again, all they make is discordant, jangling noise.

So I have no solutions to offer in my post this week, except to say: here I am, plucking away, trying to make music, trying to make a song. Are you, too, learning to sing?

Quiet waters

Lately I’ve been reading …

Enough

Other people’s words about … running

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

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lately I’ve been reading …

Beside the point

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

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

From ‘Lost and Wanted’
by Nell Freudenberger

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

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

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

18 April 2020:
Aldinga Beach (my world)

Lately I’ve been reading …

That place

Other people’s words about … slowing down

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

It’s hard to know what to say, let alone what to write about, in times like this. Surely I am not alone in beginning to think of 2020 as the year of disasters — first, here in Australia, the bushfires; then, globally, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Low ebb

About the coronavirus, I have nothing useful to say. It is only just beginning to hit here in Australia, and — despite the chance that Australians had, over the last few weeks, to learn from people’s experiences of it in the northern hemisphere — it appears that we have done very little to protect ourselves. Though we are not yet in lockdown, I suspect we will be soon.

Birds of a feather

Before the coronavirus situation began to escalate here, I was lucky enough to have the chance to slip away for a few days to Kangaroo Island. The photos in this post are from those few days.

Half of the island — yes, half — was destroyed by the bushfires earlier this year. Even without the pandemic, it is a time of great sadness on the Island.

Exposed

But I have nothing to say about that sadness, either. Instead, my photographs here celebrate, I hope, the beauty of the unburned half of the Island. In times of sadness, we have to find things to celebrate, yes?

Enter that place

Also, to borrow Belinda Castles’s words from the quote above and to use them in a different context, we have to slow down, despite our panic; we have to breathe in fresh air. We have to turn inward, finding and enter[ing] that place where no one else [can] come.

In the end, we have to find a way, within ourselves, to survive.

Unrepentant

Other people’s words about … life after therapy

It’s an odd sensation to be done with therapy, to believe it is no longer available to me as a recourse. I watch as people around me flow in and out of therapy, and as therapy flows in and out of them. I feel a familiar sense of alienation, and sometimes I’m also troubled by an obscure sense of uncleanliness, as if my resolution to abjure therapy were a perverse abstention from universally accepted hygienic practices — as if I’d taken a vow never to wash again. Therapy is an ablution, a Ganges in which everyone bathes.

From ‘Mockingbird Years’
by Emily Fox Gordon

There are two things I experimented with to excess in the years before I turned forty: restricting my eating and, like Emily Fox Gordon, consulting therapists.

So many different eating plans.

So many damn therapists!

I thought they would make me a better, healthier, happier person, but I was wrong on both counts.

Things that make me happy that don’t involve therapy or dieting (1):
A bunch of flowers planted in the dune, which I happened upon on a recent run

But in my early forties I came to a turning point, and now, nearing fifty, I know there’s no turning back. I am done with diets and therapists forever.

So here is my promise, to myself and to you: I will grow old therapy-free, no matter how unenlightened that may leave me.

And I will grow old (joyfully, unrepentantly) eating cake!

Things that make me happy that don’t involve therapy or dieting (2):
Views like this on my walk to work in the morning

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Sigh

Other people’s words about … living by the sea

We walk back to our car, the morning seeming eerily quiet. I’m used to living close enough to the shore that occasionally we can hear the gulls in the distance, crying. Here, there’s nothing. With the cold, there’s no insect noise, no bird noise. Just the wind moving the leaves, the branches swaying, the world, faintly sighing.

From ‘Fragments of the Lost’
by Megan Miranda

Once, years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I left the house by the sea in which I was living to stay for a couple of weeks with a man with whom I thought I was in love. He lived interstate, in a suburb miles from the coast: a suburb of twisting cul-de-sacs lined with neat brick houses and small, grassy parks, each of which had a set of swings, and a see-saw, and a coin-operated barbecue.

With the passing of each day in that man’s house, I felt a terrible, growing sense of fatigue and disenchantment. At first, I thought that I must be ill. I felt tired, so tired: my limbs seemed stiff and leaden, and each night, as I lay in my bed in his guest room, sleep blanketed me so rapidly, so heavily, that I felt as though it was smothering me.

Then I thought that, rather than becoming ill, I was falling out of love. This was, in fact, partly the case: from the moment I first walked through his back door, I felt myself growing angrier and angrier with this man, whose life was nothing like I had thought it would be, and who (transported from the town where I had met him, my home town) seemed a different man, a different beast altogether, from the man I had been drawn to just a few weeks earlier.

But finally, as my days in his house passed, I came to realise that my strongest feeling of all, beyond the bewildering exhaustion, beyond the unjustifiable anger, was that I was lost. I mean the word in its literal sense: not as a metaphor for some kind of emotional loss (although that was undoubtedly a part of what I was feeling; I was, after all, very young), but as a geographical descriptor. I could not locate myself in the twisting, winding, circling streets of his suburb. I could not tell north from south, east from west. I felt as though I was in a maze. I knew that it was a maze of my own making, and I knew that I had to find a way out.

And it seemed to me that if only I could hear the sea the way I could hear it when I was at home (its sighs, its mutters, its roars), if only I could hear the gulls crying in the skies above me, the way Megan Miranda describes in the passage I’ve quoted above, I would know where I was, and I would no longer be lost.

Eventually, I found my way out of that maze, and I got myself safely back home. Still, I’ve never forgotten the weeks I spent in that man’s house. I came to understand, during that time, that the sea, for me, had become a kind of compass in my life, both literal and metaphorical. That the sea gives me a sense of place. A sense of direction. A sense of home.

Here, there’s nothing, Miranda’s narrator writes, describing her visit to a place far from the sea. Perhaps that’s what the sea gives most of all to those of us who live beside it: a sense of something outside of ourselves. A sense of presence.

Sea and sand

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Quiet days

Other people’s words about … reading

For me, reading was never an antisocial activity. It was deeply social. It was the most profound kind of socialising there was. A deep connection to the imagination of another human being. A way to connect without the many filters society normally demands.

So often, reading is seen as important because of its social value. It is tied to education and the economy and so on. But that misses the whole point of reading.

Reading isn’t important because it helps to get you a job. It’s important because it gives you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect. Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape.

Reading is love in action.

From ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’
by Matt Haig

I love these words by Matt Haig. Reading gives me, too, the sense that my mind is merging with another person’s mind. Sometimes, a good book will make me cry; sometimes it will make me laugh. Always, a good book gives me a sense of connection, and a sense of escape.

I mentioned in a recent post that I was going through a quiet phase in my life, feeling my way through it. That hasn’t changed: I’m still there, still in that quiet phase. I’m spending my days learning the ropes as a freelance editor: working out the things I like about freelancing, along with the things I don’t; working out the things I can change, along with the things I can’t. Sometimes I feel as though my journey away from salaried employment towards freelance work — a journey that I was forced into, but that I have chosen to continue on, at least for now — is a hopeful, purposeful one, and sometimes I feel as though it’s a short-lived, doomed one.

Whichever it is, I’m still here. I’m still on my journey.

Still travelling.

A quiet day at the jetty

Most of all, I’m still reading. Reading helps me through these quiet days. It helps me make sense of them. It helps me feel connected.

It helps me, simply.

A quiet end to a quiet day

Lately I’ve been reading about …