Savour it

Other people’s words about … moments of beauty

Her head nested in spindly weeds [as she lay down in the grass]; the sky glowed preternaturally blue through the slats. As her breathing slowed, she noted a bee crawling along a blade of grass above her head. She counted its stripes, amazed to see them juxtaposed with the stripes of sky. The bee’s were a warning, the sky’s a promise she could not yet fathom, and for a moment everything seemed connected, aching beauty and imminent danger, the fragility of the bee and the scalded roof of her mouth, the transcendent savour of [the stolen loaf of freshly baked] bread and the fact that she was literally lying in a ditch.

From ‘Tess of the Road’
by Rachel Hartman

I love this passage, in which the protagonist of Rachel Hartman’s novel, Tess, feels utterly present in a single moment of her life: feels herself watching the moment as it unfolds. Tess’s experience of this moment, her sense of being present in it, is what a meditation teacher might call an experience of mindfulness. And yet the description is beautiful rather than didactic, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Stripes in the sky (1)

Hartman’s words are, I think, a description of the practice of mindfulness at its best. Mindfulness, to me, is not about mantras or breathing or (heaven forbid!) colouring-in books. Instead, and far more simply, it is about slowing down, about looking around, about noticing the world around you. It is, most of all, about seeing.

Because the practice of mindfulness — this kind of mindfulness, anyway, which to me is the only kind that makes any practical or spiritual sense at all — is about stepping outside, into the living, breathing world, the one that exists beyond walls and ceilings and computers and cars. It’s about looking and seeing. And about being grateful for what you see.

Stripes in the sky (2)

This year has been a strange, uneasy year for me: a year of trying to make a living from freelancing, and then trying to readjust to a salaried living, working regular hours, meeting KPIs and targets. I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned throughout the year, and grateful most of all that I was able to seek out other opportunities when freelancing alone wasn’t enough to sustain me.

Still, at times this year, when things got hard, I felt myself becoming frighteningly disconnected from the things that usually matter most to me: those still, small moments like the one Hartman describes, those moments when you stop and breathe the world in, exactly as it. Call it fear that stole those moments away from me; call it loss; call it depression; call it change. Whatever it was, it shocked me. I felt that I had stepped away from the world, and I didn’t know how to step back in.

And yet here I am now, months down the track, and I’m still here, still breathing. I’m stepping back in.

Precarious

Other people’s words about … fighting against entropy

Schizophrenia terrifies. It is the archetypal disorder of lunacy. Craziness scares us because we are creatures who long for structure and sense; we divide the interminable days into years, months, and weeks. We hope for ways to corral and control bad fortune, illness, unhappiness, discomfort, and death — all inevitable outcomes that we pretend are anything but. And still, the fight agains entropy seems wildly futile in the face of schizophrenia, which shirks reality in favour of its own internal logic.

From ‘The Collected Schizophrenias’
by Esmé Weijun Wang

It’s a strange experience returning to the salaried workforce after a period of time away from it. When I went freelance at the beginning of this year due to the closure of the Press for which I had worked as an in-house editor for the previous five years, I suspected that it would be difficult to make a sustainable living from a solely freelance income. And it was. I thought, at first, that it might just be a matter of making contacts, of building up a client base, of learning how to market myself: of learning, essentially, how to ‘hustle’. I thought at first, in other words, that it might just be a matter of time.

So I allowed time to pass as a freelancer, because I knew that I had to. And gradually, after enough time had passed, I came to understand that the passing of time would never be enough to change the precariousness of an income based solely on freelance work. I came to see that the gig economy, which relies on the work of freelancers and contractors like me (more about which, if you’re interested, you can read here), doesn’t just allow for precariousness: it depends on it. And I came to see that precariousness is not something I tolerate gladly.

I do not believe that precariousness is a synonym for freedom or flexibility, as proponents of the gig economy would have us believe. I believe that it is a synonym for anxiety. And anxiety is also something I don’t tolerate gladly.

So I have returned to a part-time salaried job, which I intend to combine with part-time freelance editing work, with an enormous sense of gratitude and relief. Though no job is ever truly permanent or secure, a salary brings with it, for as long as it lasts, certain things that are the antithesis of precariousness: regular hours, fortnightly pay, annual leave, sick leave, superannuation. Along with these financial benefits, a salaried office job, which is what my new job is, also brings with it a workplace outside of the home, and colleagues with whom one interacts every day. These things, too — which are, in essence, about belonging and community — contradict the concept and practice of precariousness. I am immensely grateful for them.

I took the first three photos in today’s post as I wandered the neighbourhood in my lunch break at my new job — a lunch break being yet another one of the ‘perks’ of a salaried office job. I’m working now in Port Adelaide, a suburb in the north-west of Adelaide which was once the heart of the marine industry of Adelaide. The wharves and docks of Port Adelaide are no longer busy in the industrial sense for which they were originally designed, so the streets I now stroll along during my lunch break are lined with abandoned warehouses and marine businesses. At the docks, dolphins swim beneath the bridge that spans the Port River, while trucks thunder overhead. The area has, on the one hand, a sense of history, beauty and purpose, and on the other hand, an air of loss, and decay, and death.

Craziness scares us because we are creatures who long for structure and sense, Esmé Weijun Wang writes in the passage I’ve quoted at the start of this post: we divide the interminable days into years, months, and weeks. She is writing about schizophrenia, and yet I’ve thought of her words frequently as I’ve wandered the streets of Port Adelaide. Because though it is true, now that I am working for a salary once more, that my feeling of precariousness has reduced, still, somehow, this fear remains. I still long for something that feels just out of reach: something that Wang describes as a way to corral and control bad fortune, illness, unhappiness, discomfort, and death, those things that, like precariousness, are, in the end, inevitable.

I took the fourth photo in this post, the photo below, last weekend, which I spent with a group of women in a holiday house in Carrickalinga, a coastal suburb south of Adelaide. The women I was with are all writers and artists. Some of them supplement the income they get from their art with a salaried or waged job; others exist solely on their freelance income. Each of these women is talented and successful in her own right, and each balances her sense of precariousness with a sense of purpose and joy and productivity in her chosen field of art.

I climbed a hill to take the photo you see here. I stood at the top of that hill and looked down at the world below me — the crumbling cliffs, the winding coastal road, the shining blue sea, the horizon at the edge of the ocean — and I felt the world expand around me, stretching out, out, out. The moment felt precarious, as the weekend had felt precarious, as the previous week — which was my first week in my new job — had felt precarious, as my freelance income had felt, and will always feel, precarious. As life feels precarious.

There was nothing I could do to remove the precariousness. All I could do was wonder at the view.

Lately I’ve been reading about …

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 …

Tipping point

Otherwise

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

by Jane Kenyon

I have never known whether this poem, which I love, is about gratitude or fear, joy or sorrow. Is Kenyon, who experienced terrible bouts of depression throughout her life, describing her gratitude for, and joy in, the small moments of beauty and happiness she has experienced on the day she describes in her poem — the peach, the walk with her dog, the work she loves, the time with her mate?

Or is she describing her fear of losing these moments — of tipping away from happiness, back down into sorrow and depression?

A small thing, this, of beauty.
It might have been otherwise.

It’s a see-saw, this poem, I think. The poet hangs in a kind of precarious balance between one life and the other, without knowing when the hinge will tip her down again, away from the things she loves. It might have been otherwise, she writes at the start, and then, later, sadder and more afraid: it will be otherwise (my emphasis).

Gratitude. Joy. Fear. Sorrow. Grief. Yearning. They’re all there in this one, short poem.

Passage

Other people’s words about … sorrow

… I tried to keep busy. I haunted bookstores, sat in cafés, drinking coffee and smoking. As the weather got colder, I went often to the Gardner Museum — for the humidity, for the scent of jasmine in the courtyard.

But of course, the truth was that I was depressed, and that waiting for me the moment I stilled was a sorrow that filled my time amply with its emptiness, that kept me very busy even as I lay open-eyed on my bed or sat at my desk staring out at the houses across the street. I tried my hardest never to still.

From ‘While I was Gone’
by Sue Miller

You know the kind of depression Miller is describing here, right? It is not so much a clinical thing, requiring medical consultations and diagnosis and treatment, as it is a thing of sorrow, of emptiness, of lacklustre wakefulness. Of restlessness. Sudden, fleeting moments of despair.

I tried my hardest never to still, Miller says, simply. You’ve done that, too, right? — tried to match the sense of endless mental pacing with an equal sense of physical pacing.

Just as there are no diagnoses or treatments, I don’t think there’s any kind of cure. I find, as with so many difficult things, that it’s mostly a matter of waiting the thing out, giving it passage, allowing yourself to see it through.

And that, for me, is where I find the stillness that Miller’s narrator describes herself trying so hard to flee. The act of waiting, of riding something out, is itself paradoxically an act of stillness. Sometimes, just knowing this can be enough.

The world out there.

And then there’s always the matter of looking up, every once in a while. Of reminding yourself that there is a world out there, to which you will return. In a moment. In an hour. In a few weeks.

In time.

More notes to the anxiety-prone

— Why you should laugh at your anxiety (and how to do it) —

Ask yourself, what’s funny here? Think of amusing ways to describe your worry to someone else. What is absurd about the situation? Exaggerate something that is mildly funny so that it becomes ridiculous. Of course, worrywarting itself is absurd, so you can always satirize the worrywarting, if not the actual worry. After you have created your comic routine, find someone — your spouse, a friend, a co-worker — to try it out on.

Give your audience permission to laugh at your absurd worrywart routine. Make sure you also laugh.

All quotes above from
The Worrywart’s Companion
by Dr Beverly Potter

Laughter’s kind of close to tears, I think.

And yet it helps.

Note:
Speaking of comedians suffering from mental illness, if you haven’t seen it yet, check out Felicity Ward‘s documentary, Felicity’s Mental Mission, first shown during Mental Health Week on the ABC but currently still available for watching. Candidly, but without self-pity, Felicity shows herself at her most vulnerable. It’s excellent viewing.