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 …

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 …

Chasing clouds

Other people’s words about … getting lost

I said earlier that I have no special running talents. In fact, I have one: getting lost.

No-one gets lost like I do. It’s not just a running thing. It’s a getting lost thing.

I’ve been lost when running, walking, driving, cycling, sailing, using public transport, even (once) taking a taxi, on at least three continents, since I first ventured out into the world as an unaccompanied teenager. I’ve temporarily abandoned a car in Milton Keynes, and once phoned [my wife] Clare from the outskirts of Northampton to warn her that I might not find my way home for days. I’ve never been lost on a running track (yet), but I have been lost indoors — not just temporarily disoriented, but properly, sit-down-and-cry-and-wait-to-die lost — on a disastrous visit to the Birmingham branch of Ikea.

From ‘Running Free’
by Richard Askwith

I am someone who gets lost as easily as Richard Askwith. I live in Australia, not England, so I’ve never got lost in Milton Keynes or Northampton, but I have certainly been to the Adelaide branch of Ikea and experienced that sense of utter lostness that he so delightfully describes as sit-down-and-cry-and-wait-to-die lost. (Though, actually, I would call that particular kind of ‘lost’ an Ikea thing rather than a getting lost thing. Just saying … )


Dune’s counterpane:
How can you ever feel lost when these are the things you see along your way?

I don’t just get lost physically, either. I frequently feel lost in a metaphorical sense, too. I admire anyone who seems to know (or who feels as though they know) where they are going in life. I don’t. I never have. The older I get, the more strongly I become aware of my inner sense of lostness.

Often, this innate sense of lostness feels like a burden. But not always. Because the thing about setting off towards one place and ending up somewhere else entirely, somewhere you hadn’t planned on and don’t recognise at all, is that you get the chance to explore.


Lizzie the garden cat:
A lost cat, but also a found one.

I’m talking metaphorically here again, of course. But the older I get, the more strongly I also come to understand the importance of being willing to explore, willing to wander, willing to wonder. And sometimes, in hopeful moments, I see many years of exploring and wandering and wondering ahead of me.

I like that thought.

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 …

Milestone

Other people’s words about … why they run

You know, I have run all my life. From fights and bars and women and any number of tricky situations. I run to think and I run to not think. I ran even when I was drinking. Often, I would leave bars and run into the night, just keep going until the exhaustion or sheer drunkenness stopped me. I don’t run in groups or on teams, I don’t run in events or with friends. I don’t run for charity. I don’t run for fitness — I ran even when I was fat or when I smoked. I run for the same thing I have always run for. The solitude and the independence of spirit. The feeling of freedom. When I was in my early teens I read Alan Silitoe’s short story ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’ and had my psyche explained to me.

From ‘Riding the Elephant’
by Craig Ferguson

I haven’t been able to run for several months now, due to a niggling ankle/tendon injury that I’m still trying to work out how to fix. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), when I came across Craig Ferguson’s words about running recently, which I’ve quoted above, they struck such a chord within me that I couldn’t let them go.

Reflective

I turned fifty this past weekend. Like most people I know who have turned fifty ahead of me, the milestone left me feeling even more introspective and reflective and wistful (or maudlin? self-absorbed?) than I usually do.

And the niggling ankle injury certainly didn’t help.

Fading beauty

So here is a metaphor for you: today, I went for a ride on my bike through the vineyards and past the scrub. I stopped to take the photograph below, because it was such a lovely, sun-dappled, shady spot, and because I already had the caption for the photograph planned. It was: ‘Who knows what lies around the next turn?’ This seemed apt, since the road I was cycling along made a literal turn, and since, at fifty, I’m also at a metaphorical turning point.

But then, after I’d taken the photograph and got back on my bike, I actually did cycle around the turn … and got repeatedly swooped by a magpie all the rest of the way down the road.

There’s a lesson in that somewhere, if you’re fifty and feeling maudlin and introspective, right?

Round the bend

But back to Craig Ferguson and the point of this post. I run for the same thing I have always run for, he writes. The solitude and the independence of spirit. The feeling of freedom.

And (oh my goodness, yes): I run to think and I run to not think.

These are the reasons I run, too, and the reasons I hope I’ll run again, one day. Is that a vain hope? Perhaps. But the fifty-year-old in me has learned that hope is worth clinging to, because, against all logic, hope keeps you real. It keeps you true.

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

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.).

Sigh

Other people’s words about … living by the sea

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

From ‘Fragments of the Lost’
by Megan Miranda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sea and sand

Lately I’ve been reading about …