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 …

How you receive the world

Other people’s words about … being vulnerable

But still she couldn’t sleep. The window was open and bare. The curtain had fallen down and no-one had bothered to put it back up because it always fell down again when you tried to pull it across. Ada was afraid that something bad was in the garden. The trees creaked. The night swam through the window and came into the room like a river.

From ‘The Last Summer of Ada Bloom’
by Martine Murray

Sometimes things are not as they seem. Sometimes the world outside seems dark and threatening, as Ada perceives it to be in Martine Murray’s gorgeous words quoted above — even when it is not.

In my last blog post, I wrote about some bad feedback that I thought I’d been given about a project I’ve been working on for a very long time. It turns out that that feedback wasn’t what it seemed at first to me, and that I’d been wrong in my interpretation of it. It turns out that there is hope for that project, after all.

Sometimes it depends on how you look at things, and on how you receive the world.

How you look at it: Darkness or light?

The project I was referring to was one I’d worked on for a long time, although over the years my commitment to it had wavered and waxed and waned. Sometimes I’d tried to run away from it, but every time I did, I would find myself returning to it, unable to abandon it until I knew that I had seen it through, no matter what the outcome would be. Towards the end I lost all sense of joy in my work on that project. It became a self-imposed duty, something I had to do regardless of the outcome, regardless of how I myself felt about it, regardless of how much time or energy or wellbeing it demanded of me. That’s why, when I thought that the feedback I’d received on it implied that I might have to do some more work in order to get it across the line, I wrote: 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 the days after I received that feedback, as I tried to work through my response, a kind friend asked me if I had ever listened to Brene Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability. I had heard of Brene Brown but I had never listened to her talk, nor I had I ever read any of her material. Without knowing anything about her, I had written her off as some kind of New Age guru or self-help profiteer. But I respect this friend a great deal, and in addition I was feeling so vulnerable that I figured listening to someone else talk about vulnerability might not be such a bad thing. So I sat down and listened to the talk, and within the first two minutes I found myself weeping.

Have you listened to it? If you haven’t, I can only recommend that you do. It is a humble speech, filled with common sense and humorous insight. It is a talk about how we long to connect with each other, and how important it is for us not to be afraid to connect, and what it takes to do so. For me, listening to Brown was a lightning moment. I wish a lot of things, but in relation to this project one of the things I most wish is that I had reached out earlier while I was working on it. I wish I had been unafraid to ask for feedback or advice right back in the early stages. I wish I had been willing to say to someone: This is what I’m working on, and it’s not working, and I don’t know why.

I didn’t, because I was seeking perfection. I didn’t, because I felt too vulnerable. But there is no such thing as perfection. And sometimes you have to be willing to feel vulnerable to move on.

This is Brene Brown’s TED talk, if you want to listen to it.

How you look at it: cute or wild?

In the aftermath of all of this, I feel exhausted and fragile. I still don’t know what will happen now that my project is out in the world (although I promise that I’ll tell you when I find out). At the same time, I feel as though I’ve learned something that I needed to know — not just about that project, but about myself. That’s another reason that it’s important to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It’s the only way we can learn.

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 …

2021

Other people’s words about … rest, and solitude

She lay down a lot — it became an activity, a way to pass the time. She lay down on the couch, reading. She lay down on the bed and, while the sky changed out the windows, was overcome by memories. She lay down on the dock and listened to the ever-changing motion of the water …

She ate only what was for sale at the farm stand … and scrambled or fried eggs and toast — it seemed like too much work to cook meat or fish, even to make a salad. At night she listened to the radio and drank wine …

She made herself take a daily walk. Once she walked partway around the lake on the path in the woods. Through the treillage of the trees she had glimpses of the expensive summer homes, some of them silent, apparently not yet opened. But at others, she could hear the shrieks of children playing. The next day, toward the end of the afternoon, it was adult voices that floated over to her from an elegant old house, the clink of ice in glasses, the laughter of the cocktail hour. It was hard to come back to the cottage after that, hard to feel her solitude.

From ‘Monogamy’
by Sue Miller

I hadn’t planned to write another post this year, thinking that the words in my last post were enough to finish my blogging year with. But, perhaps like everyone else alive today, I’ve gone on thinking about this past year, 2020. Even for me — one of the lucky people who hasn’t been affected in any material way by the pandemic, beyond being a witness to the tragedies it has inflicted worldwide — this has been a strange year.

In the passage above, Sue Miller is describing the passage through grief that Annie, the protagonist of the novel, takes in the weeks immediately after the death of her much-loved husband, Graham. Annie’s passage, even in these first early weeks, isn’t easy; even the rest and solitude she seeks in the summer cottage she and Graham bought together early in their marriage are troubled.

It strikes me that Miller’s description of a woman seeking solitude and rest as a salve for her grief is a description that transcends Annie’s particular situation. How do you feel, in the wake of 2020? Do you, too, feel filled with grief?

Peaceful, dappled light.

I have grown a little tired of the voices clamouring their joy at the prospect of the arrival of 2021. I don’t believe that the clicking over of the clock from 11.59 pm on 31 December to 12.00 am on 1 January heralds a miraculous change in the world’s fortunes. I see a long, troubled passage ahead of us across the globe, in many spheres, including public health, politics and the environment.

But I do believe, like Annie, in the healing power of rest and solitude, however difficult it may be to come back to that solitude, however hard it may be to feel it. I believe that compassion and change come from considered thought and contemplation. I believe that we have to seek peace in our hearts before we can see it reflected in the world.

And so, along with my wishes to you for a merry Christmas and holiday season and a happy new year, I wish you, too, some time to find peace. And I hope, if you find that peace, that you stoke it and kindle it inside yourself. I hope you bring it back with you into the world, so that change — real change — can begin.

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.

Plunge

Other people’s words about … taking the leap

I cannot be the only woman who fantasises, sometimes, about spinning the wheel, driving her car off a cliff. It seems impossible to do, and therefore I long to do it. If only to make a hole in the preordained. If only to do something other than follow along, bumper to bumper, a dutiful mirror, for once in my life. If only to destroy something, even if it is myself.

I say this, but I can’t even take a leap into the goddamn ocean.

From ‘The Lightness’
by Emily Temple

I like the words by Emily Temple in the passage above, not because I often think about taking a suicidal plunge (I don’t), but because they are fearless. Because they acknowledge the violence inside us. Because they confess to a longing for the impossible, no matter how destructive the longing is.

I’ve spent the weeks (months, in fact) since I last wrote in here going about my life quietly, methodically, following each day, as Temple might have it, bumper to bumper.

Like everybody else in the world, I would call this a strange year, a troubling year. If I had to describe this year in a few, broad brushstrokes, I would say: there has been fire (in both hemispheres now); there has been a plague; there has been an insane king, bent on destroying his kingdom, while his subjects watch on, appalled.

There have been fires; there has been a plague.

In my own little world, on a more personal scale, I’ve turned fifty; I’ve mourned the loss of running in my life, due to an injury that I have yet to overcome; and I’ve farewelled my old dog. Life this year feels entirely strange and yet at the same time preordained, a statement I confess I can provide no explanation for.

Farewell, old friend

I want to finish by adding something wise, something pithy, here, but nothing comes to mind. Sometimes, you just have to keep moving, keep avoiding those cliffs, until you are ready to leap into the goddamn ocean.

Lately I’ve been reading …