Treasure your beautiful world

Wild Geese (a poem by Mary Oliver)

You do not have to be good
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

It was the wonderful Gena Hemshaw who introduced me to Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Wild Geese’, and I have loved it ever since. Like Gena, I’ve found that the poem comforts me in times when the thoughts in my head are loud and tangled. And like Oliver herself, I’ve sought comfort in nature for many years. Looking up at the sky and down at the ground and out to the horizon reminds me of my place in the world. It heals me, if only temporarily.



Light on water.

 

But how true are Oliver’s words these days? How much longer can we find solace in nature if by nature what we mean is the way things are naturally, the way things have always been and the way they always will be?

It is impossible to ignore the discussion scientists and environmentalists are now having across the world about the climate crisis, the climate emergency. (That is, it’s impossible to ignore unless — and forgive me for saying this, but I will say it anyway — unless you are a white, male, middle-aged politician who thinks only about getting re-elected for another term of leadership.) It is impossible, too, to ignore the evidence of it as we go about our days. Wildfires, polar ice melt, rising land and sea temperatures, coral bleaching, floods, not to mention pandemics — here they all are, right in front of our faces.

These days when I read Mary Oliver’s words I feel despair rise thick in my throat.



Clouds above water.

 

I work very hard to inject a positive note in the posts on this blog. I don’t intend this to be a site for depression and maudlin pondering. But I cannot find a positive note to interject here when it comes to our changing natural environment.

I can only urge you, each and every one of you, myself included, to read Oliver’s poem often, to experience the feelings that arise in you as you read it, and to do what you can, in whatever way you can, to treasure this beautiful world while we still have it. Meanwhile the world goes on, Oliver says, but does it anymore?



Dying light.

 

Lately I’ve been reading …

That dark ocean

Other people’s words about … rescue

A look of doubt came across my mother’s face. It was all there in her expression. The knowledge that a person can become lost in their life, how you might swim in the waters and reach for the lifebuoys but never be rescued, might drown out there in the dark ocean of your choices.

From ‘The Inland Sea’
by Madeleine Watts

When I was a young woman receiving treatment for my eating disorder, I used to agonise over every decision I made, whether the decision was a tiny one (like what percentage of fat the yoghurt I ate should contain) or whether the decision was a life-affecting one (like what career path I should follow, or whether I should follow a career path at all). For a year or so I saw a community mental health nurse who would say to me over and over, whenever I ruminated over my decision-making processes, ‘Rebecca, there are no wrong or right decisions, no good or bad choices. There are just better ones.’

At the time, I found this woman’s words comforting. Certainly, her counsel helped me to dither less — and dithering less, for someone who had spent all her life dithering and equivocating and stalling, could only be a good thing.


Path to the horizon.

But now that I am an older woman, I wince slightly when I remember the words of that community nurse. First, like the mother of Madeleine Watts’s narrator in the passage I’ve quoted above, I am only too aware that the decisions we make in our lives can lead us down paths with destinations that are not at all what we thought they would be when we set out on them. And sometimes those paths we follow are paths with no return — paths we can only keep on walking down, no matter how lost we may feel while we walk down them.


Path through the clouds. (Look closely!)


Second, I’m even more aware that the concept of choice itself may be illusory. For a variety of reasons, those of us living in Western societies are sold the idea that we can choose how to lead our lives, choose the outcomes that lie ahead of us.* But the older I become — the older I am lucky enough to become, I should say — the more I find myself acknowledging that there are many things over which we have no control at all. You can make as many decisions and choices as deliberately or spontaneously as you like, but life often happens anyway — in its own way.

I’m conscious of talking in clichés here. Still, it’s clear to me, at the ripe old age of fifty-one, that in the end the most important decisions we make in our lives are not about what we will do but about how we will choose to respond to the cards that life has dealt us.

* I use the word ‘sold’ deliberately.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Chasing clouds

Other people’s words about … running

Once he warmed up, once the tension was gone, once the sweat had properly broken and his breathing was rhythmically heavy and every twinge of stiffness and pain from previous workouts had been obliterated by adrenaline and endorphins, when all of that had happened, there was almost nowhere on earth he’d rather be, even on up-and-down back roads with no shoulder or, as now, on the old railroad path too crowded with entitled cyclists or groups of power-walking mums in their pastel tops and self-crimped hair.

For forty-five minutes, or an hour, or an hour and a half, the world was his, and he was alone in it. Blissfully, wonderfully, almost sacredly alone.

From ‘Release’
by Patrick Ness

One of the things I think I most love about running is that the act itself is so full of mysterious contradictions. For example, it’s hard work, and yet I look forward to it as a luxurious treat, in much the same way I look forward to eating an oversized piece of decadent chocolate cake. Similarly, when I’m running I feel as though I’m moving purposefully forward, following a path to something new. And yet it’s obvious that, unless your plan when you set out is to run away and never return, any run is circular, ending right back where it began.

Even the sense that I am on my own when I run — blissfully, wonderfully, almost sacredly alone, as Patrick Ness puts it in the excerpt above — is unreliable. I am never alone when I run. I run on roads, on shared paths, on trails, on beaches. There are always others inhabiting the space with me, running or walking or cycling or just sitting on a bench enjoying the view (like the views you see in the photographs I took for this post). Running, even for a lone runner like me, is an entirely communal activity.

Another contradiction: sometimes, when I feel unwell — headachey, perhaps, or queasy or tired or sleep-deprived — I know that from the moment I step outside those symptoms will leave me for the duration of my run. Probably, I’ll feel unwell again afterwards; running isn’t ever, in my experience, a cure. But for those fifteen or thirty or forty-five minutes when my feet are drumming the ground in the old, familiar rhythm, I know I’ll be symptom-free.

I have no explanation for this. It’s just part and parcel of this beloved thing I know as running.

Maybe that’s why running appeals to so many different kinds of people — because the concept itself, what it involves, what it means, is so flexible, so all-encompassing. Some of us run to lose weight; some of us run to get fit; some of us run to break records; some of us run to find joy. Whatever the reason, those of us who are physically lucky enough to be able to consider running for the long term, in whatever fashion we can manage, have one thing in common.

We know it makes us feel like a better version of ourselves.

Lately I’ve been reading …

What lies beneath

Other people’s words about the sea

Sometimes the whole sea looks like a mirror of beaten silver, though it’s too turbulent to hold many reflections; it’s the bay that carries a reflected sky on its surface. On the most beautiful days, there are no words for the colours of San Francisco Bay and the sky above it. Sometimes the water reflects a heaven that is both grey and gold, and the water is blue, is green, is silver, is a mirror of that grey and gold, catching the warmth and cold of colours in its ripples, is all and none of them, is something more subtle than the language we have. Sometimes a bird dives into the mirror of the water, vanishing into its own reflection, and the reflective surface makes it impossible to see what lies beneath.

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

It’s been a while since I’ve written a post for this blog, for which I apologise. Sometimes, life has a way of getting in the way. Sometimes, there just isn’t much to say.

Still, Rebecca Solnit’s words about the sea make me think of walking and running by my own sea, so far from hers, on the other side of the world. In the weeks since I last wrote a blog post, summer has faded away and autumn has arrived, and the sea has transformed itself from deep blue …



… to a wondrous, pearly, rippled blue …



… to spun silver.



Time passes, and the world turns, and that is how it should be. May the world keep turning for you, too.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Wild, wondrous

Other people’s words about … this huge earth

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

From ‘How it Feels to Float’
by Helena Fox

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

Above.

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

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

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

In between.

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

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

Below.

Lately I’ve been reading …

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

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 …