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 …

Perspective

Other people’s words about … the way we look at things

In the sky [above the garden] a plane glints, tiny as a metal cracker toy, and draws a roar reduced to a whisper after it, as it follows the flight path over Bexford Hill towards distant Heathrow. There’s always a plane up there if you look, near or far, visible or only betrayed by a line of vapour, but always moving westwards … It’s as if the aeroplanes were part of the mechanism of the garden; a necessary part. As if this tidy patch of lawn surrounded by its fence, with its brilliant blossoms too many to count and its coiled yellow hose, together formed the bottom half of a machine of bliss, which required for its complete working the dome of sky above, and for the furthest component of its clockwork the timekeeping planes on their celestial track. Patiently they tick from east to west. Or perhaps they are joined to the sky, and it is the sky that is moving, a blue sphere studded with occasional silver that cranks around, and around, and around.

From ‘Light Perpetual’
by Francis Spufford

I love the way Francis Spufford, in the passage above, turns on its head the way we usually look at a place that is deeply familiar to us to create a whole new way of looking at it.

Sometimes maybe that’s all we need, right? A new perspective.

One day this week: A blue world.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been busy editing and working and making, meanwhile, small decisions about the way I plan to work from now on. I say they were small decisions and they were, really, but in some ways — the best ways — they have transformed the way I feel about how I live my daily life.

Over the years I’ve read a great deal about the benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy, which in essence is a therapy that aims to help a person change the way they think so that they can overcome their own particular mental obstacles.


Another day the same week: A grey world.

But I’ve never found much resonance in cognitive therapy. For me, it’s less about changing the way I think about things than it is about changing the way I see things.

Semantics, you think? Maybe. But it works for me.

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 …

Riches

Other people’s words about … bitter weather

This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.

Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.

If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.

‘Time to Be Slow’
by John O’Donohue

I met with a friend for coffee a couple of days ago — a friend I hadn’t seen for a number of years, someone I thought had moved on in her life; someone I thought, I guess, that I’d never see again. I have come to understand that friendships come and go, and that the friendships that don’t last aren’t any less rich for the shortness of their duration, though they are still worth grieving. And so, though I had missed this friend once we stopped seeing each other, what I mostly felt when I thought about her over the last few years was gratitude for having had her in my life, however short-lasting her friendship may have been.

But last week she reached out to me again, and over coffee we found ourselves taking up where we had left off. And so now I am feeling doubly blessed — for the richness of the friendship we’ve had so far, and for the richness of a friendship that has begun again, for however long.

Time to be slow

We talked about our lives over the last few years, and — of course — about this particular, strange year. And a few hours after we had said good bye, she sent me a link to the poem I have quoted in this post. (The original link she sent me was here.)

Because it is a lovely poem, and because life, like friendship, can have twists and turns that seem utterly bewildering despite our every attempt to make the most of it, I’ve quoted the poem for you here in its entirety. 

As I write this post, we are coming to the end of 2020 — though not, I think, to the end of this strange, troubling time. I hope this poems reminds you of life’s richness, however troubling it may be.

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.

Unlovely

Other people’s words about … the view from the kitchen window

The kitchen window [of the railroad flat] looked into the gray courtyard where, on better days, there would be lines of clothes baking in the sun, although the floor of the deep courtyard, even in the prettiest weather, was a junkyard and a jungle. There were rats and bedsprings and broken crates. A tangle of city-bred vegetation: a sickly tree, black vines, a long-abandoned attempt at a garden.

From ‘The Ninth Hour’
by Alice McDermott

The world can seem very unlovely sometimes, can’t it? Sometimes the unloveliness is of the kind described in the passage above, which comes from poverty and dereliction and is visible from your kitchen window. And sometimes it comes from a more spiritual kind of unloveliness: a human lack of grace.

Shafts of sunlight in the scrub

There are times when I fret and rail at the unloveliness, times when it is all I can see. And there are other times — for the space of a breath, or a second, or a minute, or an hour — when I am overwhelmed by the loveliness that surrounds me, both within people and without.

Oystercatchers on the reef

I had a week of annual leave from work last week, which I spent at our falling-down house in Aldinga. The weather was dank and damp and (yes) somewhat unlovely, and, at least partly in response, my mood veered up and down erratically.

Autumn in the vineyards

But then, over the week, because I’m on a pause in my running at the moment, I found myself seeking out my bike again, taking myself for long, hypnotic rides along the coast and through the hills and paddocks and vineyards. And all around me, amidst the dampness and dankness, there were moments of loveliness, some of which you can see pictured in today’s post.

Rainclouds over the hills

Sometimes, I think, you just have to take moments of loveliness like this and carry them with you, through the unloveliness. Sometimes it’s all you can do.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Enough

Other people’s words about … running

When it was light enough to run, I set out on the path that circles Lake Burley-Griffin. The last time I’d run there, I had mucked up that marathon. The temperature hovered at zero: my ungloved hands were painfully cold, and my throat burned on each inhalation. Heavy banks of mist rose from the water; garnet-coloured leaves caught the first morning sunlight; galahs dug for seeds in grasslands rigid with frost; yellow poplars blazed alongside conifers and eucalypts I couldn’t name; hot-air balloons floated from the horizon at the opposite bank. I ran to stay warm and I ran to buoy my mood and I ran to stay a part of this glorious composition. I ran too because once I’d committed to the loop, I had no other way of getting back to my car.

From ‘The Long Run’
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

Two weeks ago, feeling sore and stiff and out of sorts and achey, I googled ‘hip flexor stretches for runners’ (or some such other, similar, innocuous phrase) and downloaded a set of five stretches that I vowed to do daily, in an effort to loosen up my nearly-fifty-year-old, sedentary worker’s body.

That, at least, was the plan. But one of those five daily stretches was a kind of yoga squat: a pose where you bend your knees from a standing position and lower yourself down to a straight-backed crouch — keeping the soles of your feet flat on the ground and placing your arms between your knees, hands in prayer position — and then stay there, in that deep, stationary squat, for a minute or two. I did this comfortably enough (though somewhat awkwardly) on Day One. On Day Two, I felt sore afterwards; and then I made myself far, far sorer by going for a run despite that post-stretch soreness. And I’ve been sore ever since — so sore, in fact, that my physiotherapist tells me I need to lay off from running for now. Not because this is a running injury (it’s not, technically, since I didn’t get it while I was running), but because running exacerbates it.

So here I am, not running, for the first time since I took up running again back in 2017, at the age of forty-seven.

It is enough:
(1) There are pots of tea to brew …

Strangely enough, I don’t mind at all. I thought I would mind, and in a pre-pandemic life I probably would have. But today? Right now? I don’t.

Because if there is one thing I am grateful for, in this strange, post-pandemic world, it is that living in a lockdown has reminded me to slow down: to accept my life for what it is rather than for what I thought it might be. (Or could be. Or should be.) I am healthy, and so are my family and friends. I have a job, and a roof over my head, and a bed to sleep in. I have books to read, and pots of tea to brew, and cakes to bake, and beautiful bowls to eat from, and beaches to walk on (if not, for now, to run on).

That is what I have, and it is enough. It is truly enough.

It is enough:
(2) … and beautiful bowls to eat from.

When I read Catriona Menzies-Pike’s words in the passage above — I ran to stay warm and I ran to buoy my mood and I ran to stay a part of this glorious composition — I had to blink away tears. Those are the reasons I run, too. They are the reasons I will run again, one day sooner or later.

But still, what I have right now, though it isn’t that, is enough. It is another loop, though not of the running kind, and I am committed to it. And it is, simply, enough.

Lately I’ve been reading …