Speak

Other people’s words about … despair

She sat across from him. For some reason, he removed his glasses and set them on the gold table. His naked eyes were as dark as the burnished leather they sat on and held a startling amount of despair. The effect struck her as indecent, as if he’d disrobed. ‘Put your glasses back on,’ she wanted to tell him. ‘For God’s sake.’

from ‘Vacuum in the Dark
by Jen Beagin

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the things people say to each other and the things they don’t. And about subtext, which is not quite the same thing but is part of it all the same.

Over the last couple of years, having written and submitted a middle-grade fiction manuscript to my agent which has as yet to find a home with a publisher, I’ve been writing a literary fiction manuscript. I haven’t mentioned this here till now, in part because my writing in that area is still so new and tentative, and in part because when I say the words, ‘I am writing a literary fiction manuscript’, all I hear is my own internal mocking laughter.

You? says the voice in head, that little internalised voice. How could you possibly presume to have something to say in the literary fiction field? How could you assume that much writing talent of yourself? That much wisdom?

Bracken fern, light and shadow, January 2023.

It’s impossible to say whether what I’m writing will ever be something complete, let alone publishable. That’s the risk any writer takes, whether they have had previous books published, as I have, or not. But what I am writing about in that manuscript is in part what Jen Beagin describes so beautifully in the passage I’ve quoted above: our unwillingness to witness each other’s despair. Our inability to talk about it or bring it to light. Our constant need to reassure each other with upbeat, optimistic conversation and good cheer.

I am not by nature a cheerful person. Nor am I an optimist. Nor am I a skilled conversationalist. At fifty-two, I still find myself getting midway through a conversation with another person, only to realise that I have revealed too much of myself: my fears, my doubts, my sadnesses. (Actually, ‘I still find myself’ is the wrong way to put this; in fact, the right way to put this would be, ‘I increasingly find myself’.) Maybe this isn’t evident to the person I’m talking to, or maybe it is. I’m never sure. But I often feel like the man Beagin describes in the passage above: glasses off, the truth in my eyes revealed. This is not a comfortable place to find myself.

But increasingly I believe in the importance of confronting the secrets we see in other people’s eyes. I believe in meeting those secrets head-on. I believe in talking about them. Perhaps what I am saying here is that secrets don’t have to be the subtext to the conversations we have with other people: they can be the essence of our conversations. They can be where we meet.

Common everlasting flowers, January 2023.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Replenish

Other people’s words about … being alone

As the train left the station, I felt a sense of relief. I wanted to walk in the woods and among the trees. I wanted not to speak to anyone, only to see and hear, to feel lonely.

from ‘Cold Enough for Snow
by Jessica Au

I’ve been thinking a lot this year about solitude and loneliness, about participating socially and withdrawing. Though popular scientists and the mainstream media continue to exhort us to maintain our social connections as we age, both for the health of our brain and for our psychological wellbeing, I have come to believe that it’s just as important to be comfortable in your own skin as it is to be comfortable in a social context.

Garden pickings (1), October 2022.

Some years ago a friend said to me that what she admired most in me was that I am a person who has a rich inner life. I have often thought about her words and what they might mean. I tend to think of myself as introverted and shy, a social choker, and I often find myself wanting because of this. But the truth is that when I let go of my expectations of myself as a social creature, I am happy wandering the avenues of my mind.

I think that’s why I find such accord with Jessica Au’s words in the passage I’ve quoted above. What if loneliness wasn’t just a negative version of solitude? Why not embrace it for itself? In fact, why not seek replenishment from it?

Truly: why not?

Garden pickings (2), October 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Revelation

Other people’s words about … secrets

‘Philip,’ [his mother Rose] said. ‘There are things I could tell you.’
‘Tell them,’ Philip said.
‘No.’
‘Why not? I’m prepared.’
She turned, looked at [Philip’s father Owen] slumped on the sofa. ‘Because I don’t believe that just because something’s a secret it therefore by definition has to be revealed,’ Rose said. ‘Keeping certain secrets secret is important to — the general balance of life, the common utility.’

From ‘The Lost Language of Cranes

by David Leavitt

I have always been fascinated by people like Philip’s mother Rose in the passage above: people who keep their own counsel. I have a tendency to do the opposite — to over-share, to talk to people for advice, to feel guilty if the life I lead isn’t entirely transparent. I’m not sure why. I may just be wired that way, but I suspect that years of therapy during adolescence and early adulthood ingrained this way of being in me. When you are used to talking things through with someone on a weekly basis, it can feel odd — unsafe, even — once you stop.

Gnarled trunk, early July 2022.

I like Rose’s matter-of-fact statement that secrets don’t have to be revealed. Sometimes, when I am uncertain about a course of action or a decision I have to make, I think of the oath that I’m told doctors must take: ‘First, do no harm.’ I find this oath, applied to life in general, one of the most useful creeds I know.

And so I find myself thinking that Rose may be right. If keeping a secret doesn’t harm anyone, then why feel compelled to reveal it? Why not learn to live in silence with one’s own truths?

Waterways, early July 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Only connect: Reunion

Other people’s words about connection

Maude cranes around to look and Cormac looks too, close enough to see them, all quite young and glacially made up with one man of height and handsomeness towering over the rest and another, a man to the tall one’s left, cocking his head and nodding in Cormac’s direction meaningfully.
It is Senan. Cormac waves …
He hasn’t seen Senan in person for months and yet his vision still telescopes in, urgent and unreconstructed, so that Cormac sees and knows again he loves him with a scratchy passion that returns as reliably as a rash. It is not a nostalgic feeling and casts no shadow, existing always in a self-sustaining now.
How acute it is: immediate deja vu.

From ‘We Were Young

by Niamh Campbell

I love this passage from Niahm Campbell about a man reuniting with someone he loves after the two of them have spent some time apart. Cormack, the character in Campbell’s novel, seems unable to commit to one person, whether man or woman; he moves from one relationship or liaison to another. But as a backdrop to all his attempts to remain unfettered there is his love for Senan, a man who is smart enough, perhaps, to keep himself unavailable and therefore always desirable and lovable.



Sunlight and trees, April 2022.


Who hasn’t at some time in their life loved someone who was unavailable? Or, moving beyond relationships and intimacy, who hasn’t wanted something that was eternally just out of reach?


Grasstree, May 2022.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Legacy

Other people’s words about … a beached whale

For as long as there have been humans, the whale has been a portentous animal. A whale warrants pause — be it for amazement, or for mourning. Its appearance and its disappearance are significant. On the beach, an individual whale’s [beaching and] death may not prove ‘global’ in the way of its body powering down abruptly, like a switch being flicked, but, in a different sense, the deaths of whales today are global. The decline of a sperm whale — [its belly, when dissected post-mortem,] filled with sheeting and ropes, plant-pots and hosepipes — belongs to a class of environmental threat that, over the past few decades, has become dispersed across entire ocean systems, taking on transhemispheric proportions. This whale’s body serves as an accounting of the legacies of industry and culture that have not only escaped the limits of our control, but now lie outside the range of our sensory perception, and, perhaps even more worryingly, beyond technical quantification. We struggle to understand the sprawl of our impact, but there it is, within one cavernous stomach: pollution, climate, animal welfare, wildness, commerce, the future, and the past. Inside the whale, the world.

From ‘Fathoms

by Rebecca Giggs

If you want to read only one book about climate change, and if you want that book to be one whose narrative ranges from the scientific to the literary to the philosophical to the emotional, and if you want it to be a book that explores metaphors and symbols right alongside facts and evidence, then Rebecca Giggs’s book is the one I’d encourage you to read. We struggle to understand the sprawl of our impact, Giggs writes of climate change. But if you read her book you will come closer to understanding.

Vista.

 

I’ve been quiet here on my blog recently, mostly because it’s hard to know what to say right now. The global pandemic continues. So does the climate emergency. And so, too, does my own little life, which I continue to pass by walking on the beach, by showing up to work, by writing a book that I hope one day will be published, by (maybe) moving house, and by growing older but not necessarily any wiser.

The pictures in today’s post come from a holiday I took last month in Deep Creek, a national park in the heart of the Fleurieu Peninsula. In my next post, I’ll feature more photos from the same part of the world, a part of the world so beautiful it’s hard not to feel your heart break with wonder and awe as you move through it.



Grasstree world.

Transhemispheric. That’s not a word I’ve come across before, but it’s an apt one to use if you’re trying to comprehend the size of humanity’s impact on the natural environment. I thought about that, too, while I was in Deep Creek. I thought and thought and thought.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Only connect: Those small moments

Other people’s words about connection

Paul sat alongside Julian on the kitchen floor. There was a long moment that they didn’t touch, or even look at each other. Paul could feel them staring at the same patch of wall, the scar … in the yellow paint. When Paul breached the distance he expected Julian to recoil, but he didn’t. Paul had barely touched his arm when Julian collapsed against him. He lay with his head on Paul’s lap, hardly making a sound but for the scattered rhythm of his breathing.

From ‘These Violent Delights’
by Micah Nemerever

Here in Australia, while countries all over the rest of the world have spent the last few months steadily vaccinating their populations against Covid-19, our population has remained largely unvaccinated. But now, with the kind of predictability that it seems only our political leaders were unable to predict, the Delta strain of Covid-19 has arrived on our shores. And because, without vaccination, lockdown is the only form of protection we have against the virus, we are — state by state — moving into lockdown once again, as the new strain of infection spreads. South Australia, where I live, went into a strict seven-day lockdown at 6pm on Tuesday night. The lockdown will be extended if the outbreak continues to grow, which is what has happened in New South Wales and Victoria.

Right now, I’m working from home. I’m lucky to be in the kind of work where this is possible, I know, but that’s the best I can say about the situation. Lockdowns are funny things, aren’t they? They do funny things to your mind, to your thinking. Maybe they lock your mind down, too?


Turn your back. Look away.

Anyway, in my spare time during lockdown I am reading, reading, reading. (Also writing a little, too, but that’s another story.) The libraries are closed but I have enough books from my last trip to my local library to tide me over, at least for now. And so I’m reading stories that transport me to other places and times, sentences that move me to laughter and tears, words that depict small moments of connection, like the moment between Julian and Paul in the passage above.

Everyone has their own way of coping, I know. Me? When things are tough, I collapse into books the way Julian collapses into Paul. I can think of far worse ways to collapse.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Only connect: When we can

Other people’s words about connection

[My friend] Maeve took a strand of my hair and smoothed it into place as she talked. I was afraid of her leaving [to work in Vietnam]. Her breath was warm on my neck, her fingers easing through my hair. I depended on all of her small intrusions of affection. In Vietnam it would be hot, and I would be lonely in Sydney without her.

From ‘The Inland Sea’
by Madeleine Watts

I met a friend I hadn’t seen for several months for a walk on the beach recently, and we walked and talked and laughed and commiserated with each other, and I thought again how I miss her when I don’t see her for a while, and how sad that feeling of missing her is. But I also thought, knowing that I would miss her again when we’d walked away from each other that morning, that what I feel in missing her, mixed in with my sadness, are gratitude and joy for having met her, and for knowing her, and for seeing her when I do, and for talking to her when I can.

This, for me, is what Madeleine Watts means when her unnamed narrator says, of her friendship with Maeve, that she depend[s] on all of her small intrusions of affection. It is such a lovely phrase to describe that connection we feel with the people we love, such a perfect description of the way we bump into our friends and then ricochet away from them and then bump back into each other again.

This morning, as my friend and I walked, she touched my shoulder from time to time, and I in turn bumped her elbow a moment later. Sometimes she spoke too softly for me to hear her — because that’s something she often does, speak softly — and I was too embarrassed to keep asking her to repeat herself. And then sometimes I spoke for too long and was worried I was boring her.

And this, too, I think, is what Watts means when she speaks of those small intrusions of affection from our friends — without which, I sometimes think, it would be impossible to live.


A morning together.

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 …

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.

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 …

 

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