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 …

The map of my face

Other people’s words about … making peace with yourself

My face is a map of all I have lived. Some days, I feel beautiful and right in my skin. Some days, I don’t. The truth is, we never really get fixed; instead, we try to make peace, daily, with who and what we are. We learn to embrace the glorious, imperfect whole rather than punishing ourselves because of our flawed parts.

Anyway.

From ‘Before and After’, by Libba Bray
in ‘Hope Nation’, edited by Rose Brock

I wrote in a recent post about ageing and how I feel about it as I near the age of fifty. About how, as I’ve aged, I’ve grown more rather than less conscious of the way people perceive me.

Perhaps, in that post, I conveyed the sense that I thought beauty was solely an external concept, that it had only to do with one’s physical shape, one’s embodied self. If I did, I apologise. I have always known that beauty comes from within. As I age, I become even more aware of that than ever.

The dying of the light

You could read the words I’ve quoted in today’s post, from Libba Bray’s essay ‘Before and After’, as being about learning to come to terms with one’s physical imperfections and so-called flaws. Indeed, her essay is, at least in part, about how her physical appearance changed after she was involved as a young woman in a terrible motor vehicle accident in which she lost an eye.

But that’s not how I read her words. When she writes: Some days, I feel beautiful and right in my skin. Some days, I don’t, I take her I to mean her sense of her inner self, and how that inner, intangible self feels to reside in the physical husk of her body. When she writes: we try to make peace, daily, with who and what we are, I take her what to mean her embodied self, but I take her who to mean her inner self, her non-physical self.

Her soul, if you like.

We are each of us, in our daily experiences of living, enmeshed in both the physical and the non-physical aspects of life. Our understanding of beauty therefore encompasses those twin aspects. So, I think, does ageing, which we may experience as a sense of growing physical frailty or as a sense of growing wisdom (or, equally, of growing mental infirmity). The physical begets the non-physical — and, I suspect, vice versa.

So when I read Bray’s words, I felt an instant resonance with them. We learn to embrace the glorious, imperfect whole, she says, and I take the word whole to mean the whole of life: physical, non-physical, and everything in between.

Which I, too, embrace.

*

Bray’s essay is, in fact, about hope rather than beauty or ageing, and it is addressed specifically to teenagers and young adults. In it, Bray writes about how she, as a very young woman, found hope amidst despair. Despair, she makes clear, is primarily an experience of loneliness, and hope, therefore, is an experience of the opposite of loneliness. Of love.

Or, as Bray puts it in (spoiler alert) the last three lines of her essay:

You are not alone.
You are not alone.
You are not alone.

Growth

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Under big skies

Other people’s words about … the moon over the sea

He lay across the bed on top of the bedspread [in his room in the cottage by the sea]. Moon shadows of trees outside fell against the pine-based walls. The bedspread was tinged a bluish white, its pattern of roses transformed to a lunar landscape. He had forgotten about the particular lustre of a seaward moon. How when a moon hung over the ocean they were not separate entities, but a third element fused from their continuous correspondence. The planks of the cottage walls appeared fastened together by this faint glow.

From ‘The Dependents’
by Katharine Dion

I love Katharine Dion’s description, here, of the moon hanging over the sea. Years ago, when I worked the late shift, I used to drive home afterwards to our beach shack south of the city. The drive took me just under an hour, and by the time I turned off the main road onto the esplanade, it would be nearly midnight. From my car, I could see the beach beyond the cliffs, the waves rolling in to meet the shore and then falling back. The water was the colour of black ink, and on clear nights the moon hung above it in just the way Dion describes: as though it was connected to the ocean, as though the two were in communication with each other.

I would turn off the esplanade onto our own road feeling freed of the shift I’d just worked, returned to the life I wanted to live, by the ocean, under big skies.

Evening skies

I haven’t worked the late shift for years now, but I still feel the same gratitude for the house where I live, for the ocean at the end of the road, for the moon and the sun and the sky over the water, which I see every night and every day.

Every night. Every day.

The ocean at the end of the road

Lately I’ve been reading about …

If only I’d known

Other people’s words about … what’s important (or not)

I found a studio where I could practise a particular kind of semi-cultish yoga; I sweated on my purple mat for ninety minutes to pounding trance beats, drank smoothies in the vegan cafe, relished the feeling of freezing sweat on my cheeks when I threw my coat on over my leggings and walked in the snow to the Q train.

Maybe this will be the year I’ll learn to stand on my head, I thought, maybe a headstand is the thing I will accomplish in 2014. I thought about it a lot, like a headstand was a thing that was important.

From ‘This Really isn’t About You’
by Jean Hannah Edelstein

If only I’d known. That’s the feeling Jean Hannah Edelstein is describing in the passage above. In her case, these words applied to a period in her life when she didn’t yet know that she had Lynch syndrome, a hereditary condition that predisposes her to developing cancer later in her life.

If only. If only. Who hasn’t said that to themselves, at some point in their lives? If only I’d known, I’d have focused on other things. If only I’d known, I’d have made different plans. I’d have done more; I’d have said more; I’d have tried more. I’d have been more.

Don’t tell me you haven’t ever thought that.

*

It’s been a quiet couple of weeks over here in my nook of the world, as I continue to try to find my way in the freelance world. I don’t know whether I’ll manage to make a living from freelance editing, in the end. But on tough days, uncertain days, I remind myself that at least I’ll always know that I tried.

Which makes for one less if only in my life.

Grey skies

And meanwhile, in my spare time, I’ve gone wandering beneath grey skies, and blue skies, and cloudy skies, and clear skies. Because there’s no hint of an if only whenever I’m out wandering.

Blue(-ish) skies

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Rescue

Other people’s words about … giving up

A few years ago I was living in a loft with a man and two cats and it started to happen again. In the morning, in the split second between sleep and waking, I would almost accidentally start to pray. I’d feel sunlight through the slits in the blinds, register that the alarm on my iPhone was going off, start hitting the bed and the windowsill and digging under myself to find it and tap its little snooze ‘button.’ There were cats on either side of my head, and my human husband, to the right, was snoring hairily on his back, his hands curling and uncurling on his chest like the paws of a tickled kitten. But despite how many of us there were in the bed, I felt alone and too small to survive, too permeable, too disorganized, and trapped in something I didn’t have the words to describe. And something in me stretched up in a physical way toward the place where God used to be. I’d wake up and remember: there is no God. But I wanted to give up anyway, as if in doing so I could be rescued.

From ‘Letter from Williamsburg’
by Kristin Dombek
in The Best American Essays 2014, edited by John Sullivan and Robert Atman

I grew up in a non-religious family, but I was christened and baptised, and from primary school onwards I went to a Church of England (now Anglican) school. At school, we sang hymns and said prayers in the Assembly Hall every morning; and we had weekly lessons in Christian Education; and we went to special services in the church affiliated with the school at Easter and Christmas; and we had a special school hymn, which we sang (off by heart) at Speech Day at the end of each school year. I can still recite the Lord’s Prayer all the way through.

All of which is to say, I was instructed as a child in the habit of faith. Maybe that’s why I remember talking to God and making bargains with God all the way through my childhood and on into adolescence.

Dear God, I would say inside my head, if you give me this, I will do that. And: Dear God, let me get through this. And: Dear Lord, make things get better. Please make things get better.

That kind of thing.

Stretching up (1)

The kind of prayer I was taught at school, the non-bargaining kind of prayer we practised there, is an art: it’s a ritual, a discipline. An act of community, too. But the other kind of prayer, the bargaining kind of prayer, the chatty kind of prayer — the kind Kristin Dombek describes when she writes, I would almost accidentally start to pray (my emphasis) — is instinctive. And solitary. It comes, I think, from something deep inside of us: a yearning to feel better. Or to do better. Or to be better. A yearning to be heard.

Because who doesn’t want to stretch up — in an almost physical way, as Dombek puts it — to something outside oneself, something bigger than oneself? Who doesn’t want to be answered?

Who doesn’t want to be heard?

Stretching up (2)

Lately I’ve been reading about …

My version, your version

Other people’s words about … truth

In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination … The facts of imaginative literature are as hard as the stone that Dr. Johnson kicked. We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios — there are none. This is the way it is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.

From ‘The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’
by Janet Malcolm

I was disabused of the notion that memoirists and autobiographers write ‘the truth’ a long time ago, after I read, and wept over, James Frey’s ‘memoir’ A Million Little Pieces, only to discover subsequently that he had made up much of what he had written about within it. Since then, I’ve learned to take anything I read in a piece of nonfiction with a huge pinch of salt.

Like most people, though, I am still used to thinking of works of fiction as telling something that is the opposite of truth. I think of them as stories, things that exist only in our imagination. I love the way that Malcolm, in the passage above, subverts this concept of the truth. In doing so, she tells us something far more truthful, I think, about the nature of truth.

Interior versus exterior:
Grass trees from a distance

It was my mother who introduced me to Janet Malcolm, after a conversation we’d had about nonfiction writing. I found Malcolm’s thoughts on the problem of truth in biography and other nonfiction writing illuminating, even though the passage I’ve quoted from is now more than fifteen years old.

Truth versus fiction, internal truth versus external truth, interior versus exterior. How much of what we see and read and think is subjective and biased? How much can we ever say is true?

Interior versus exterior:
Inside a grass tree

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been reading online lately: