A year of words

Other people’s words about … other people’s words

I’ve been thinking about reading again recently — what it means to me, what it gives to me, why, even though it’s a solitary activity, it makes me feel connected to the world. I like Sarah Clarkson’s use of the word journey, in the passage below, to describe the act of reading. Reading, like life, is a journey. You never know where it might take you.

Reading, rather, is a journey. Reading is the road you walk to discover yourself and your world, to see with renewed vision as you encounter the vision of another … Reading is a way to live.

From ‘Book Girl
by Sarah Clarkson

Reading is a journey

PS It’s good to be back in the blogging world. I’m changing the format of my posts slightly this year, but it’s still all about celebrating other people’s words. So … here’s to another year! xo

One day

Other people’s words about … the sea

After lunch, as a reward for their fine behaviour, Nurse allowed them to bundle into coats and hats and bolt from a back door along a path that ran behind Mr Styles’s house to a private beach. A long arc of snow-dusted sand tilted down to the sea. Anna had been to the docks in winter, many times, but never to a beach. Miniature waves shrugged up under skins of ice that crackled when she stomped them. Seagulls screamed and dove in the riotous wind, their bellies stark white. The twins had brought along Buck Rogers ray guns, but the wind turned their shots and death throes into pantomime.

From ‘Manhattan Beach’
by Jennifer Egan

I have never been to a beach in the kind of winter that Jennifer Egan describes in the passage above. Many years ago, in Michigan, I walked across a frozen lake (and thereby learnt the meaning of the term ‘wind chill factor’), but that was a lake, not the ocean. I’d like to experience that wild, violent chill, just once in my life.

The beach I know and live by has its own seasons of peace and restlessness. Often, the early months of Autumn are times of softness and stillness, and this past April there were several days when the sea lay like blue, shining silk on a bed of sand.

I took the photos in today’s post one evening around sunset in the first week of April.

As you can see, my coastal world is utterly unlike Egan’s, but there is wildness at its essence, all the same.

Miracle

Other people’s words about … running

Soon, he is at the base of the mountains, his heart rate is at least 140, and the peaks tower over him like wild, hungry beasts. It is this moment in which Russ understands himself best. In which he could easily say, my name is Russ Fletcher, I am a man living a certain sort of life, and I am happy.This gasping moment is free of obligation, of expectation and that bruised yellow past. It is only Russ and his beating man’s heart, Russ and the cloud of his breath as it unfurls white in the cold morning, Russ and the burn, burn of his legs. The needle-prick attention of his mind, as it focuses on blazing extremities. Running, Russ is okay. Running, he moves forward.

From ‘Girl in Snow
by Danya Kukafka

I have a chequered history with running, but recently, I’ve taken up the habit on my own terms. Here’s how it goes: every day, either before or after work, I make the effort to stroll down the road to the beach, and then, once I’m on the sand, a few metres from the shore, I break into a run for a few minutes. Often, honestly, I run for only five minutes or so before slowing down, turning around and heading back home. I guess it’s as much about getting fresh air into my lungs, moving my limbs a little before or after sitting at a desk all day, feeling sand crumble beneath the soles of my feet, as it is about anything you might want to call ‘fitness’ or ‘athleticism’.

Occasionally, though — once or twice a week, if I’m lucky — I run for a longer time, for twenty minutes or so. I take my camera with me (so that I can stop along the way to take photos like the ones in this post) and go for a run through the Scrub, or beside the railway line, or along the foreshore path. No matter how slowly I run, or how heavy my legs seem to become, or how tired I was beforehand, or even, some days, how sub-par I felt before I set off, there is always a moment on these runs when I feel, like Russ in the passage above, that I understand [my]self best, a moment when I feel free of obligation, of expectation, of that bruised yellow past.

A couple of years ago, when I first took up running again after a lapse of twenty years, I hoped to run for much longer times, to run much further distances. That seemed to be what every other runner did, after all. And that’s what I wanted to be: a runner.

But running is like everything else in life: what works for other people isn’t necessarily what works for me. And over the last two or three years, I’ve learned — at first to my bitter (childish?) disappointment, and then, slowly, to my joy — that I can find a way to run on my own terms and still find pleasure in it. Still find release. Still find hope. And reason. And courage. And peace. And, like Russ, who runs when he’s both joyous (as in the first quote) and terribly sad (as in the next quote), freedom.

Russ runs. He takes off down the sterile … streets … All he can do now is push — move his body, sweat it out, keep inching forward. For now, he focuses on his own limbs and the miracle ways in which they serve him. The freedom of the open Colorado sky.

I thought at first, when I couldn’t run the distances I wanted to run, the distances I thought I should run, the way everyone else seemed to, that I was giving up. It took me a while to understand that finding a way to run that worked for me wasn’t so much about giving up as it was about learning to surrender.

Surrendering is not the same as giving up. I didn’t understand this before. I am glad that I am beginning to now.

Out and about: the last summer days

‘When you’re walking the view shifts and changes.
Walking’s a form of hope.’

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

Here’s the thing I always forget as summer draws to a close and the annual grey-weather dread steals over me: there are moments, at this time of year, when the wind drops, and the sea becomes shining and silken and blue.

I took the photos in today’s post as I wandered the beach at Largs Bay one afternoon a few days ago, in the week before Easter. The day was so still, and the tide so low, that the pine trees along the Esplanade were reflected in small pools of seawater that had formed between the sandbar and the main ocean …

… and out on the water, ships hung suspended in blueness, somewhere between sea and sky:

It was an afternoon that reminded me that there’s joy and beauty in every season — yes, even in the seasons you’d rather not be heading into …

On labour

Other people’s words about … loneliness

Dad’s dying had been like a long labor, the work mostly his, but the experience for me was as profound, as isolating, as the labor of birth. For weeks after my son was delivered, I remember, I was stunned by it — by what I’d gone through, by how alone with it I’d felt, by how astonished I was by it, and by how isolating that astonishment was. Others held my son, admired him. They saw him simply as a big healthy baby. But when I looked at him, part of what I saw and felt was how he’d come to me, that long solitary labor, the amazing combination of agony and release that I felt I could explain to no one else. And in some nearly parallel way, this is what I felt about my father’s death. It was what I returned to frequently, it was privately where I lived, for a long time after it was over.

From ‘The Story of My Father
by Sue Miller

Let me start by explaining (hastily!) that the affinity I feel with the words in the quote above is not because I’ve ever given birth (I have not). Nor, more importantly, is it because I’ve recently experienced the death of anyone close to me, let alone my father, who is a strong, healthy, happy man whose company I hope to enjoy for many years to come. No, not at all.

I am a big fan of Sue Miller’s writing. What I most like is her attention to detail, her scrupulous examination of people’s inner workings — their thoughts, their feelings, their individual senses and perceptions — and the way she then builds on these ‘small’ things to make ‘big’ stories from them. A writer friend of mine who isn’t a fan of Miller’s books once said to me that she feels ‘dead inside’ when she reads a Miller novel. And I get that, actually. I think, in fact, that what my friend dislikes about Miller’s writing is exactly what I like: the precision, the detail, the refusal to hurry over anything, or to be swayed by sentiment or affection or a need for resolution for her characters.

I’ve explored loneliness and isolation a lot in my posts on this blog, but I thought the theme was worth returning to because of Miller’s words here. I was stunned by it, she says of giving birth, by how astonished I was by it, and by how isolating that astonishment was. This, for me, distils the experience of living itself, the realisation that each experience we have, however great or small, however joyful or devastating, is an experience we feel we [can] explain to no one else.

In the last couple of years, whenever I’ve experienced bouts of unwellness or anxiety (or both, combined) that have left me feeling isolated at home, struggling to go out, struggling to get to work or to catch up with people I love, I have found myself, afterwards, return[ing] to those experiences repeatedly in my mind; I have found that those times of illness were, for a while, privately where I lived.

Miller’s use of the word labor here refers only to giving birth, but the passage applies to other things, too, if you reframe it: to the labour of living, of loneliness — yes, to that astonishing labour.

And yet, still, it is worth labouring on.

Of peonies and perception

Other people’s words about … memory

That was the beginning of that summer, which merged in many of their minds with other summers, but was remembered chiefly as the summer that young William was born, and there was that sad matter of the other baby; but remembered by Polly as the summer that [her cat] Pompey died and his splendid funeral; remembered by old William Cazalet as the summer he clinched the deal over buying the Mill Farm down the road; remembered by Edward as the summer when, offering to stand in for Hugh at the office, he met Diana for the first time; remembered by Louise as the summer she got the Curse; remembered by Teddy as the summer when he shot his first rabbit and his voice started going funny; remembered by Lydia as the summer she got locked in the fruit cage by the boys who forgot her, went off to play bicycle hockey and then to lunch and nobody found her until half-way through lunch (it was Nan’s day off) and she’d worked out that when the gooseberries were over, she’d die of nothing to eat; remembered by Sid as the summer when she finally understood that Rachel would never leave her parents, but that she, Sid, could never leave Rachel; remembered by Neville as the time his loose tooth came out when he was on his fairy cycle which he could only dismount by running into something so he swallowed the tooth and didn’t dare tell anyone, but waited in terror for it to bite him inside; remembered by Rupert as the summer when he realised that in marrying Zoe he had lost the chance of being a serious painter, would have to stick to school-mastering to provide her even with what she thought of as the bare necessities; remembered by [Edwards’s wife] Villy as the summer when she got so bored that she started to teach herself to play the violin and made a scale model of the Cutty Sark which was too large to put into a bottle, something she had done with a smaller ship the previous summer; remembered by Simon as the holidays Dad taught him to drive, up and down the drive in the Buick; remembered by Zoe as the frightful summer when she was three weeks late and thought that she was pregnant; remembered by the Duchy as the summer that the tree paeony first flowered; remembered by Clary as the summer she broke her arm falling off [her horse] Joey when Louise was giving her a riding lesson and when she sleepwalked into the dining room when they were all having dinner and she thought it was a dream and Dad picked her up and carried her to bed; remembered by Rachel as the summer she actually saw a baby being born, but also the summer when her back really started to go wrong, was only intermittently right for the rest of her life. And remembered by Will, whose first summer it was, not at all.

From ‘The Light Years
by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Today’s quote is a long one, so I’ll keep my own words short. Howard in this passage describes, poignantly, two things — first (and most obviously), the way our experiences are filtered by our own perceptions and then, further, by our own memories, so that the way one person remembers something can be entirely different from the way another remembers it; and second, she describes the summer of 1938, which was the year before World War II began, though Howard — deliberately, I think — does not say so in this passage, and does not have her characters remember it that way.

Every time I read this passage I find myself sympathising with a different character, or nodding in recognition at a different character’s thoughts or feelings. And then, in turn, I find myself thinking about my own memories, and re-examining them, and wondering how someone else, going through the same things, would perceive and remember them …

Snatched phrases: last pages

‘I will love a book forever
if the final pages mark my subconscious.’

From ‘The Museum of Words’
by Georgia Blain

My mother and sister and I (all inveterate readers) were talking the other day about those devastatingly disappointing books you read all the way through, from start to finish, without skipping a paragraph, because you are in the grip of a conviction that you’ll get to the end and suddenly — suddenly — all this time you’ve spent reading it, feeling love and hate for the book and its author in equal measure, will be justified.

You know those books I mean? I say ‘devastatingly disappointing’ because I am describing the kind of book that, when you do finally get to the end, you realise your time wasn’t justified at all. You realise that, on the contrary, the whole time you spent reading it was, in your opinion at least, a waste of time.

You know those kinds of books?

That’s why I love Georgia Blain’s words above.

So I thought I would make a list of books whose last pages have, as Blain so delightfully puts it, marked my [own] subconscious forever. Here they are, in no particular order:

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
Prep, by Cutis Sittenfeld
The Children’s Book, by AS Byatt
A Map of the World, by Jane Hamilton
The Smart One, by Jennifer Close
Me and Mr Booker, by Cory Taylor
Wasted, by Marya Hornbacher
Tell Me I’m Here, by Anne Deveson (Georgia Blain’s mother).

And, yes, the book I’ve quoted today, Museum of Words, by Georgia Blain.

What about you?

Note:
Despite all I’ve said to the contrary in the past, it seems I’ve got snap-happy for the start of 2018. Join me here (or click on the icon on my home page) if you’d like to, for more photos of the sand, sky, sea, scrub (and everything in between) …

The standstill

Other people’s words about … writing

I knew I was writing a book about anaesthesia, but I didn’t know why. Nor did I know why it mattered to me that I didn’t know. Why does anyone do anything? What I was struggling with … was not simply why I was writing (and consequently, I felt, what I was really writing about), but who was doing the writing. There seemed to me two ‘me’s — each with their own agendas and itineraries and neither able or prepared to communicate with the other. Everything one wrote, the other rejected. One I will call the journalist — a pragmatic procedural self, this ‘me’ positioning myself as the objective observer reporting on what I found in my travels. The other I will call the dreamer. Not in the romantic sense, but the dreamer as fool, blundering around, kicking up fragments of a different story.

from ‘Anaesthesia’
by Kate Cole-Adams

I’ve been writing the same book for the last seven years, and that seems to me, in today’s world of electronic publishing and social media, a very long time. It is a long time. I’m a realist: I know that there are no guarantees I’ll ever finish it; and I know, too, that even if I do, there no guarantees it will get published. Still, for whatever reason, I find I can’t write any faster than I do.

So I was encouraged when I read that it took Kate Cole-Adams ten years or so to research, write and publish her non-fiction book Anaesthesia, from which I’ve quoted above. It’s a very fine book, worth taking ten years to write, I think. I found myself marking out several passages as I read it — passages I returned to over and over, and thought about using for one or more of my blog posts. So the quote I’ve used today may be just the first: there will be more to come, I hope.

Everything one [part of me] wrote, the other rejected. It occurred to me when I read these words that, over and above her own personal experience of her self, which Anaesthesia in part explores, what Cole-Adams is really describing in this passage is writer’s block. People think of writer’s block as being unable to write, but I don’t think that’s what it is, not really. In my experience it’s more a case of writing and writing, but hating everything that you write. You write, you write, you delete, you delete. Eventually, you come to a writing standstill.

At a standstill —
or poised to soar?

I like Cole-Adams’s image of herself, the writer, as dreamer and fool, blundering around, kicking up fragments of a different story. For me, too, that’s what writing often seems to be about. And sometimes — just sometimes — when you allow this to happen, when you allow the judgmental, procedural part of yourself to step back from the stage, it seems okay that this is how it feels.

At moments like this, it seems okay, too, to be taking your time to write what you write. Five years. Seven years. Nine years. Ten. It’s all part of the blundering, right?

Yellow

Other people’s words about … spring

After Matthew left I lost the knack of sleeping. Brighton seemed unsettled and at night it was very bright … At periodic intervals throughout the day I felt that I was drowning, and it was all I could do not to fling myself to the ground and wail like a child. These feelings of panic, which in more sober moments I knew were temporary and would soon pass, were somehow intensified by the loveliness of that April. The trees were flaring into life: first the chestnut with its upraised candles and then the elm and beech. Amid this wash of green the cherry began to flower and within days the streets were filled with a flush of blossom that clogged the drains and papered the windscreens of parked cars.

from ‘To the River
by Olivia Laing

I continue to be fascinated with the notion of seasons, and how the idea of a season is as much a cultural and traditional one as it is a quantifiable or temporal one. Here in my part of South Australia, if you were to measure the year out using temperature and climate as your basic season markers, you might say that we begin the year in January and February with dry, glaring, windy heat. In March and April the weather is often warm and dry but the wind drops off; in May and June the days grow cold, though they remain frequently sunny and still. Somewhere around July and August, the serious clouds and rain begin; in September and October there may be both storms and patchy sun; in November and December the weather is dry and warm but variable.

That, at least, would be one way to mark out the seasons where I live.

But temperature and weather are only half the picture. Plant life and animal life have their own seasons, too. In the northern hemisphere, spring is often celebrated as a season of growth and birth, much as Laing describes it so vividly in the passage above, but here in South Australia, that season of growth is far more staggered and gradual. In late July, when the temperatures are still winter-cold, the native plants begin to flower, and the birds begin to build their nests. By November, that cycle of birth and growth has already begun to slow and drop off.

And then there are the different seasonal colours. Myself, I tend to think of July and August, in my own world, as the yellow months. So many of the native plants that flower at this time of the year have yellow blossoms: acacias, guinea flowers, groundsel flowers, punty bushes, bush peas, goodenias.

Many of the plants I’ve just named were in flower on one of my latest walks in the Scrub, as you can see in the pictures accompanying this post. Everywhere I looked, from the tops of the trees right down to the ground, there were sprinklings of yellow.

So it was a yellow walk through a yellow world. Perhaps we should call this time of year the yellow season?