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 …

Bright lights

Other people’s words about … living small

His approach, enjoying small spots of nature every day rather than epic versions of wilderness and escape, made sense to me. Big trips were the glaciers, cruise ships to Madagascar, the Verdon Gorge, the Cliffs of Moher, walking on the moon. Small trips were city parks with abraded grass, the occasional foray to the lake-woods of Ontario, a dirt pile. Smallness did not dismay me. Big nature travel — with its extreme odysseys and summit-fixated explorers — just seemed so, well, grandiose.The drive to go bigger and further just one more instance of the overreaching at the heart of Western culture.

I like smallness. I like the perverse audacity of someone aiming tiny.

From ‘Birds Art Life Death’
by Kyo Maclear

This week marks a new phase in the COVID-19 pandemic, as the world begins to open up again, economically. Here in South Australia, several restrictions will be lifted from 11 May. Cafes will reopen for outdoor eating; travel within the state (to holiday houses and campgrounds) will be encouraged; libraries will open their doors to patrons; swimming pools and community halls will be available for public use once more. All of these reopenings are accompanied by regulations that we could never have imagined prior to the pandemic, most of which are to do with the amount of people gathering in any one spot, and the distance they must keep between each other. But still, even with those rules in place for the foreseeable future, it’s clear that the lockdown is easing slowly.

And I am glad — glad that so few people are ill and dying here now in South Australia; glad that people whose livelihoods have been threatened by the closures of their businesses can now have a chance to make a living again; glad that people who have felt isolated and lonely during lockdown can go out into the world again and reconnect.

But also, I find myself feeling a little sad as the quiet time comes to an end.

Cafe life during the pandemic: the not-so-bright lights

Because, like Kyo Maclear, I, too, on the whole, like smallness. I don’t mean that I like illness or poverty or death — of course not. I don’t mean, either, that I can’t see how incredibly fortunate I’ve been (so far) during this pandemic, given that my health, and the health of all the people I love, remains intact. Given that I still have a job and an income.

But still, for the longest time — for as long as I can remember, in fact — I have felt out of tune with what Maclear calls the overreaching at the heart of Western culture. Over and over in my life, I have sought smallness over largeness; quietness over noise; scarcity over plenitude; closeness over distance; solitude over the throng. Often, this pursuit has felt less like a choice to me than a compulsion or a duty. Often, it has felt very lonely.

During the lockdown, though, as life has shrunk and quietened, as the crowds have thinned and ebbed away, I have seen my instincts and compulsions aligning themselves with the changing world around me. And in this quieter, smaller world, I have felt something inside of me loosen and release. I have felt, for once, at peace.

Through a window: looking up and out to the light

In the society I live in, a Western society like Maclear’s, we are encouraged to spend big, to think big. To live big. In tandem, we are encouraged to ignore the damage that results from doing so — the damage to the environment we live in, and the damage to the quiet places within ourselves, to the truths we feel in the smallness of our own hearts.

Coronavirus has affected the world on a global scale: its effects have been enormous, and they will be long-lasting. And yet, how perverse would it be, to borrow a word from Maclear, if what we take away from this catastrophe is a desire to live smaller, to aim tiny? How audacious? How — dare I say it — wonderful?

Deserted beach: this beautiful light

Lately I’ve been reading …

The life ahead of you

Other people’s words about … distance

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

Geraint didn’t answer.

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

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

From ‘The Children’s Book’
by AS Byatt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

The light shining through

Lately I’ve been reading …

Burning, breaking

Other people’s words about … climate change

For the very first time, the wetlands are also on fire. Old Gondwana growth, ancient forests are aflame. This is not the forest that regenerates; what is being lost will never return. It is not hard to see that something is deeply, palpably wrong. All winter drought conditions have intensified; the building fire skipped the river, which should have been a natural break. There is practically no water left; the Shoalhaven is so parched that the town will run dry within months.

From ‘Mourning a Disappearing World as Australia Burns’
by Jessica Friedmann
Read the whole article here

Happy New Year to all my readers. I wish you all a joyous 2020.

I’m writing this post on a day in which bushfires continue to rage uncontrolled across much of my country. I know that this story is being covered by the media, and so there is not much I can say that you yourselves probably haven’t read or thought already. The article I’ve quoted in today’s post is worth reading, though, in addition to whatever else you’ve read or heard: I am in accordance with much of what Friedmann writes.

All I will say is this: it has astonished me for years that I live in a country where it is possible for politicians to deny that climate change is occurring, that I live in a country (a world?) where apathy and bluster are accepted forms of political leadership.

My country is burning. It has been getting ready to burn like this for years. It breaks my heart.

It breaks my heart.

Holiday views, though the fires were already burning when I took this photograph.
View from the Kangaroo Island ferry, 29 December 2019

Savour it

Other people’s words about … moments of beauty

Her head nested in spindly weeds [as she lay down in the grass]; the sky glowed preternaturally blue through the slats. As her breathing slowed, she noted a bee crawling along a blade of grass above her head. She counted its stripes, amazed to see them juxtaposed with the stripes of sky. The bee’s were a warning, the sky’s a promise she could not yet fathom, and for a moment everything seemed connected, aching beauty and imminent danger, the fragility of the bee and the scalded roof of her mouth, the transcendent savour of [the stolen loaf of freshly baked] bread and the fact that she was literally lying in a ditch.

From ‘Tess of the Road’
by Rachel Hartman

I love this passage, in which the protagonist of Rachel Hartman’s novel, Tess, feels utterly present in a single moment of her life: feels herself watching the moment as it unfolds. Tess’s experience of this moment, her sense of being present in it, is what a meditation teacher might call an experience of mindfulness. And yet the description is beautiful rather than didactic, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Stripes in the sky (1)

Hartman’s words are, I think, a description of the practice of mindfulness at its best. Mindfulness, to me, is not about mantras or breathing or (heaven forbid!) colouring-in books. Instead, and far more simply, it is about slowing down, about looking around, about noticing the world around you. It is, most of all, about seeing.

Because the practice of mindfulness — this kind of mindfulness, anyway, which to me is the only kind that makes any practical or spiritual sense at all — is about stepping outside, into the living, breathing world, the one that exists beyond walls and ceilings and computers and cars. It’s about looking and seeing. And about being grateful for what you see.

Stripes in the sky (2)

This year has been a strange, uneasy year for me: a year of trying to make a living from freelancing, and then trying to readjust to a salaried living, working regular hours, meeting KPIs and targets. I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned throughout the year, and grateful most of all that I was able to seek out other opportunities when freelancing alone wasn’t enough to sustain me.

Still, at times this year, when things got hard, I felt myself becoming frighteningly disconnected from the things that usually matter most to me: those still, small moments like the one Hartman describes, those moments when you stop and breathe the world in, exactly as it. Call it fear that stole those moments away from me; call it loss; call it depression; call it change. Whatever it was, it shocked me. I felt that I had stepped away from the world, and I didn’t know how to step back in.

And yet here I am now, months down the track, and I’m still here, still breathing. I’m stepping back in.

Precarious

Other people’s words about … fighting against entropy

Schizophrenia terrifies. It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy. Craziness scares us because we are creatures who long for structure and sense; we divide the interminable days into years, months, and weeks. We hope for ways to corral and control bad fortune, illness, unhappiness, discomfort, and death — all inevitable outcomes that we pretend are anything but. And still, the fight agains entropy seems wildly futile in the face of schizophrenia, which shirks reality in favour of its own internal logic.

From ‘The Collected Schizophrenias’
by Esmé Weijun Wang

It’s a strange experience returning to the salaried workforce after a period of time away from it. When I went freelance at the beginning of this year due to the closure of the Press for which I had worked as an in-house editor for the previous five years, I suspected that it would be difficult to make a sustainable living from a solely freelance income. And it was. I thought, at first, that it might just be a matter of making contacts, of building up a client base, of learning how to market myself: of learning, essentially, how to ‘hustle’. I thought at first, in other words, that it might just be a matter of time.

So I allowed time to pass as a freelancer, because I knew that I had to. And gradually, after enough time had passed, I came to understand that the passing of time would never be enough to change the precariousness of an income based solely on freelance work. I came to see that the gig economy, which relies on the work of freelancers and contractors like me (more about which, if you’re interested, you can read here), doesn’t just allow for precariousness: it depends on it. And I came to see that precariousness is not something I tolerate gladly.

I do not believe that precariousness is a synonym for freedom or flexibility, as proponents of the gig economy would have us believe. I believe that it is a synonym for anxiety. And anxiety is also something I don’t tolerate gladly.

So I have returned to a part-time salaried job, which I intend to combine with part-time freelance editing work, with an enormous sense of gratitude and relief. Though no job is ever truly permanent or secure, a salary brings with it, for as long as it lasts, certain things that are the antithesis of precariousness: regular hours, fortnightly pay, annual leave, sick leave, superannuation. Along with these financial benefits, a salaried office job, which is what my new job is, also brings with it a workplace outside of the home, and colleagues with whom one interacts every day. These things, too — which are, in essence, about belonging and community — contradict the concept and practice of precariousness. I am immensely grateful for them.

I took the first three photos in today’s post as I wandered the neighbourhood in my lunch break at my new job — a lunch break being yet another one of the ‘perks’ of a salaried office job. I’m working now in Port Adelaide, a suburb in the north-west of Adelaide which was once the heart of the marine industry of Adelaide. The wharves and docks of Port Adelaide are no longer busy in the industrial sense for which they were originally designed, so the streets I now stroll along during my lunch break are lined with abandoned warehouses and marine businesses. At the docks, dolphins swim beneath the bridge that spans the Port River, while trucks thunder overhead. The area has, on the one hand, a sense of history, beauty and purpose, and on the other hand, an air of loss, and decay, and death.

Craziness scares us because we are creatures who long for structure and sense, Esmé Weijun Wang writes in the passage I’ve quoted at the start of this post: we divide the interminable days into years, months, and weeks. She is writing about schizophrenia, and yet I’ve thought of her words frequently as I’ve wandered the streets of Port Adelaide. Because though it is true, now that I am working for a salary once more, that my feeling of precariousness has reduced, still, somehow, this fear remains. I still long for something that feels just out of reach: something that Wang describes as a way to corral and control bad fortune, illness, unhappiness, discomfort, and death, those things that, like precariousness, are, in the end, inevitable.

I took the fourth photo in this post, the photo below, last weekend, which I spent with a group of women in a holiday house in Carrickalinga, a coastal suburb south of Adelaide. The women I was with are all writers and artists. Some of them supplement the income they get from their art with a salaried or waged job; others exist solely on their freelance income. Each of these women is talented and successful in her own right, and each balances her sense of precariousness with a sense of purpose and joy and productivity in her chosen field of art.

I climbed a hill to take the photo you see here. I stood at the top of that hill and looked down at the world below me — the crumbling cliffs, the winding coastal road, the shining blue sea, the horizon at the edge of the ocean — and I felt the world expand around me, stretching out, out, out. The moment felt precarious, as the weekend had felt precarious, as the previous week — which was my first week in my new job — had felt precarious, as my freelance income had felt, and will always feel, precarious. As life feels precarious.

There was nothing I could do to remove the precariousness. All I could do was wonder at the view.

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Take note

Other people’s words about … gratitude

I am so glad to still be here. Every day, I do my best to see the colours. I take note. I breathe them in.

From ‘How it Feels to Float’
by Helena Fox

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, I know. I want you all to know that I have been thinking of you, and I have been thinking of posting. There just hasn’t been room inside my head to get to it.

The first groundsel flowers of the season
(Spring is coming)

But when I read Helena Fox’s words in the Acknowledgments section at the back of her wonderful novel for young adults, How it Feels to Float, I wanted to pass them on. Because no matter how crammed my head — my brain, my mind — feels at the moment, I, too, do my best to see the colours, to breathe them in.

Blue winter sky

The photographs in today’s post come from a walk I took in the scrub a few weeks back. I hadn’t wandered through the scrub for a while, and I haven’t made it back since, but those moments were precious. I am still breathing them in.

Last rays

Stuck

Other people’s words about … working for yourself

After months of effort, I felt stuck. I had been trying hard to get some projects off the ground, but they kept getting knocked off course. I had managed to persuade a think tank to work with me on a big research project, but then the director of the think tank had been fired. I had been promised a retainer to do some work with a healthcare company, but then they looked at their budgets and changed their mind. I had been asked to apply for a couple of non-executive roles, and then failed even to get interviews. I was working nearly all the time, but after all my efforts, I was barely scraping a living as a jobbing hack.

For a while, in my thirties, I felt stuck in a job. I once told my boss that I was ‘bored out of my fucking mind’. I now want to shake that girl who got a regular pay cheque for doing something perfectly pleasant and tell her to grow up. But you can’t tell anyone how to feel. If you feel stuck, you feel stuck. And there aren’t all that many species on this planet that are at their best when they feel trapped.

From ‘The Art of Not Falling Apart’
by Christina Patterson

I picked up Christina Patterson’s book late last year, at one of those bargain-basement discount bookstores that dot Rundle Mall these days. In the book, Patterson tells the story of how she was made redundant from her job as a journalist and had to find work as a freelance journalist instead. Oddly enough, only a couple of days before walking into that bookstore, I’d learned that the press at which I worked as an editor was being closed due to budgetary constraints, and that I was about to lose my job.

It would be an understatement to say that I felt as though Patterson’s book had struck a chord with me.

Sky and trees (1)

Right now, six months down the track, I’m still at the very early stages of my freelance career, as Patterson was at the time she wrote her book. It feels too early to me now — too close, perhaps, too raw — to try to describe the journey I’m on in any detail, though I’ve touched on it in previous posts. Certainly, there are days when, like Patterson, I look back on my younger, salaried self and shake my head over all those times I claimed that I was ‘bored’, that I was ‘stuck’. And there are days when, again like Patterson, I feel stuck right here, right now, forever.

But to go into any further detail here — to dwell on the doubts, the negatives, the vicissitudes — would be tedious, I think. Or joyless. Or beside the point. Or all of the above. Besides, there are other things to focus on. There’s the world around me: the sea, the trees, the birds, the air. The sky. There’s always the sky.

From now on, I plan to spend more time looking up at the sky.

Sky and trees (2)

On that topic, if you want to join me in my sky-gazing, feel free to hop on over to my new Instagram account, twentyonewords_aboutthesky. I’ll be taking a photo of the sky each day and posting it there, as a reminder to myself — and to anyone else who wants to be reminded — to keep looking up.

After all, as Matt Haig says in Notes on a Nervous Planet, Look at the sky. (It’s amazing. It’s always amazing.).

Perspective

Other people’s words about … depression. And baking.

I was diagnosed with depression, but it didn’t feel like depression … [What] I felt was very, very afraid. I felt like I’d been poisoned. I felt like there had been an avalanche in my head and I’d been shunted along by some awful force, to some strange place, off the map, where there was nothing I recognised and no one familiar. I was totally lost.

From ‘Saved by Cake’
by Marian Keyes

Marian Keyes’s description, in Saved by Cake, of living with depression — a depression which descended on her unexpectedly in the middle of her life and which has not since lifted — is truly horrifying. She describes, in the paragraph I’ve quoted above, and in further paragraphs that I haven’t quoted here, the kind of depression that verges, I think, on psychosis. The depression has invaded her mind. It is the stuff of nightmares.

Keyes writes of turning to baking cakes in desperation — because, she writes, she finds that baking is a distraction from her depression. But there is a terrible distinction between distraction and cure, and Keyes is fully cognisant of this. Tragically, distraction is the only tool available to her.

Keyes’s depression has, it seems to me, shut her mind down, closed her off from the rest of the big, wide world.

View from the edge of the big world

I think that’s the thing that strikes me most about this kind of depression. Because the world we live in is a big, wide world, and I can’t imagine a life in which I couldn’t see and wonder at its very bigness.

I don’t consider myself a particularly upbeat person. I often feel trapped in my own mind, stuck in my own gloomy, inner perceptions. But it’s been a long, long time since I felt entirely shut off from the big, wide world around me. And for that, I am intensely, immensely grateful.

Big world, big sky, big ocean

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 …