When I was about fourteen or so, I studied a poem in school by David Campbell, called ‘On the Birth of a Son‘. It was a sonnet, and I didn’t know much about sonnets, except that Shakespeare wrote a lot of them. It never occurred to me that a contemporary poet might write one.
This sonnet by David Campbell has stayed in my mind ever since. It remains one of my favourite poems. Here it is, in its entirety:
The day the boy was born, the wall fell down That flanks our garden. There’s an espaliered pear, And then the wall I laboured with such care, Such sweat and foresight, locking stone with stone, To build. Well, it’s just a wall, but it’s my own, I built it. Sitting in a garden chair With flowers against the wall, it’s good to stare Inwards. But now some freak of wind has blown and tumbled it across the lawn — a sign Perhaps. Indeed, when first I saw the boy, I thought, he’s humble now, but wait a few Years and we’ll see! — out following a line Not of our choice at all. And then with joy I looked beyond the stones and saw the view.
On the face of it, this poem is about becoming a parent — the fears new parents have; the limitations parenthood imposes on their lives; the unexpected, unsettling joys it rewards them with. So it might seem strange that Campbell’s words have always resonated with me, though I have chosen, deliberately, never to become a parent.
But that’s the thing about great poems: they are universal. They manage to strike a chord in different people at different times for different reasons.
For myself, every time I read this poem I am moved by the contrast the poet makes between the act of looking inward — at his safe, pretty, cosy life — and the act of looking up, out, to glimpse a view of the world, and his life, beyond.
The view beyond. Recently, I went on a camping trip to Yorke Peninsula with my partner. We returned to the same spot we always return to, driving down a long, undulating, unpaved road to get there — one that is corrugated and dotted with puddle-holes, dusty with sand stirred up by other passing vehicles, and lined with dense thickets of bush where brown snakes lie coiled, sleeping.
Each day we passed our time the way we always pass our time there. Each day we woke to the same view.
But it is a spectacular view: of open skies, of wide seas, of sprawling cliffs and rolling sand dunes. It is a view of a life beyond the life we normally lead. It is a view that sets me free.
I live a small life: small things give me pleasure. I consider myself, mostly, lucky to be able to live this way. And yet it’s good to escape from time to time: to look up and out and beyond.
Recently, I spent a weekend in Perth, Western Australia, celebrating a friend’s fiftieth birthday.
Read that sentence again. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? I hopped onto a plane in Adelaide on Friday afternoon, and arrived in Perth two hours later; I rented a small, sunlit apartment in West Perth for two nights; and then late on Sunday afternoon, I hopped onto another plane and flew back to Adelaide. This is the kind of thing people do all the time, if they can afford to. It’s what people call a ‘holiday’, a ‘break’.
And this trip was both of those things, and for me, that seems a little like a miracle.
In my twenties, I spent over two years travelling and living overseas: waitressing in London, volunteering on an archaeology dig in Texas, working in a factory and then an ice cream shop in Germany, and, in my last year, teaching English in Cairo and Jakarta. I was a well-seasoned traveller by any standards. By that age, I had had emetophobia — a fear of nausea and vomiting, which I have mentioned in passing on this blog before (here, for example) — for over fifteen years. It caused the odd anxiety attack (the kind I’ve referred to here and here), but nothing else. It certainly didn’t stop me from my travels.
But then, in my late thirties, something happened. Something — some edifice of bravery or stability or spontaneity inside of me — crumbled. For some reason, I began to feel queasy and nauseated more often, and so, because of the emetophobia, I began to feel anxious more often. The sickness and the anxiety always accompanied each other: sometimes it was hard to tell which came first. (This is the emetophobe’s eternal dilemma: Do I feel anxious because I am nauseous? Or do I feel I nauseous because I am anxious?)
My illness and anxiety seemed to be magnified when I travelled. They became even worse if I was travelling in the company of people I loved, people I really wanted to travel with. Despite the occasional bout of nausea and stomach upset during camping trips, I continued going camping (truly, thank goodness for my beloved Yorke Peninsula!), but, in the end, I stopped all other forms of holiday travel. I booked rash, non-refundable trips to visit my dearest friends who live interstate — Perth, New South Wales — and then cancelled my bookings, losing all the money I’d spent in the process. I planned holidays in Portugal and New York, with family, with friends, with my partner, and then I cancelled those trips, too. I wanted to go on those trips, but I felt that I couldn’t.
In the end, I stopped going on holidays anywhere beyond the state borders of South Australia.
I just stopped.
Fear of holidays is a very strange fear to have. Adelaide author Elisa Black is one of the few people who understand it:
The anxiety during this trip was so intense that it is almost too much to remember, no matter how hard I try. I know I thought I was going crazy. I know I was exhausted …
Constant dread, that is what I felt … What I wanted was to not feel this way, to be normal, but if that wasn’t possible then I wanted to crawl into a hole where I could be safe, where everything could be controlled …
from ‘The Anxiety Book‘ by Elisa Black
Those phrases: constant dread, and I wanted to crawl into a hole where I could be safe. They say it all. For me, they speak to a form of social anxiety. For many years, I have been ashamed of my phobia. What is there to fear about vomiting? And so, when I get nauseous, and the nausea triggers my anxiety, I am also flooded with feelings of shame. I try to act ‘normally’ during the course of an attack of nausea, but my terror and my shame impair my performance. (Note that word, with all its implications: ‘performance’.)
What I long for when I am nauseous is to be alone. I long for some kind of sanctuary.
Fear of holidays and travel is one thing. But then, too, there’s the fear of flying.
Winter in Adelaide this year has been very stormy. We have had one of the rainiest winters ever recorded; we have had statewide power cuts; we have had floods. It is spring now, and yet winter still hovers and menaces. The night before I left for Perth, there was another storm, and when I went to walk my dog the following morning, I saw that branches from the pine trees that line the esplanade by the beach had come down, barring our path over the dunes.
It did not seem a very auspicious day for flying. All that wind! All that turbulence! I wondered — I truly wondered — if I could get on the plane and fly to Perth as I’d promised.
Oddly, I am not actually afraid of the act of flying itself: unlike many anxious fliers, I don’t fear plane crashes or hijacking. I once knew a woman who feared flying because she had a fear of sharks, but I don’t share this particular terror. My fear is, I think, more like a form of claustrophobia: it is a fear of becoming nauseated and thus anxious whilst I am trapped inside a machine, way up in the air, with no escape. I am not very good at staying still when I am anxious about being sick. I do not lie down, as most people do when they feel unwell: I go outside; I pace; I tremble; I sob melodramatically; I run away. I do not like to be witnessed or contained. An aeroplane is, unfortunately, the perfect vessel of witness and containment.
Scott Stossel shares my fear:
For instance, the fear of vomiting … makes me afraid of travel because I’m afraid I’ll vomit far from home. It makes me afraid of flying not for the conventional reason that I’m afraid that the plane will crash, although I also have that, but I’m afraid I’ll get motion sick and get nauseous … The horrible kind of self-fulfilling vicious cycle of emetophobia is that if you’re prone to acute anxiety and nervousness, as I am, it often manifests itself with stomach symptoms.
At first glance, today’s post might seem to be all about fear. Yet here I am, back from a wonderful weekend in Perth, despite all my fears.
So what I am writing about today is, in fact, celebration. Forgive me if it seems solipsistic, but this is about me breaking a pattern. It’s about me, stepping onto a plane; me, flying; me, not getting ill while I was on holiday as I’d feared (though I did get anxious). It’s about me being able to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. It is about some part of me being restored after all these years: rebuilt. Not recovered, exactly: I am still emetophobic; I still have a funny tummy; I am still anxious; I still find recovery, from both illness and anxiety, a problematic concept.
Most of all, what I am writing about today is hope.
By the way, if you should ever choose to holiday in Perth, you must visit Kings Park, where most of the photos on today’s post were taken. It is a beautiful place: a kind of sanctuary, if you like. Take a picnic there with you, or a book; go for a wander with friends.
Enjoy your time there. Celebrate it. Allow yourself to feel restored.
And, wherever you are today, whatever you are doing right now, breathe. Smile. Wonder.
He tried to show me the basics [of surfing], but he made it look too simple. Surfing was in his muscle memory, in his blood, in his thoughts. It was like his shadow, simply part of him …
We got back into the water one more time, and the sea tugged me under and tossed me around under a wave, like a plaything, like it was laughing at me. I came up ready to go home, mouth full of salt, hair full of sand.
from Season of Salt & Honey by Hannah Tunnicliffe
( p. 134)
My partner is a surfer. In his fifties now, he started surfing in his teens, catching a ride to the south coast with an older friend who had a driver’s license.
Though I love the sea, I have a fear of waves, of getting dumped. Still, when the two of us first met (nearly twenty years ago now), I wanted to give surfing a go. I wanted to see what made him love it so.
So he took me out into the salt water at Yorke Peninsula, he on his surfboard and I on my boogie board, paddling hard. He set me up for a couple of waves. Each time, when the wave rolled towards me, he said, ‘Now!’ and then, when I froze, he gave my board a push, and away I went. I rode the wave towards shore, lying flat on my belly on the board as he’d shown me, and it was fast and terrifying and exhilarating all at once.
And I got it. I got what he felt out there in the ocean. I got the magic of it. The awe.
But I’ve never attempted it again. I can’t read the waves or the currents. I’m afraid of getting caught in a rip. I don’t understand the sea. I love it; I’m awed by it; but I don’t know it.
She gives me that sad, hopeful look that says [surfing] can be for everyone, should be for everyone. That surfing is the best thing in the world. Her strange, blue-grey eyes fix on me, like she wants to explain. I imagine her in the sea, like a fish, moving as though made for the water. She would know where to put her feet, how to balance, how to fall without hurting herself, without drowning. She’s probably one of those girls who rides the waves as though she’s dancing with the whole of the ocean; her and the water taking different roles, moving in different ways. The ocean leads and she simply responds.
I think, for me, the sea will always remain a beautiful, mysterious, unknown quantity. There are different ways of loving it, perhaps. Mine isn’t the way of the surfer, but it’s still there. It will always be there. I have lived by the sea for twenty years or more now, and the sand and the salt and the sea are in my blood.
I’m lucky enough to see them reasonably often —
when we go camping at Yorke Peninsula,
and also on our home beach south of Adelaide.
They’re always in a pair, a trio or a quartet when I see them —
They scurry along the shore,
instantly distinguishable from the more common red-capped plover
by their size, and their gorgeous black hood.
I hope I’ll keep seeing them for the rest of my life.