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.

Small

Other people’s words about … the passage of time

‘ … We can be like sisters,’ she says. And then she freezes.

I smooth my hair behind my ear. I look at the snow.

‘I didn’t … ‘ She leans forward, cradles her head in her hands.

And I think of how time passes so differently for different people. Mabel and Jacob, their months in Los Angeles, months full of doing and seeing and going. Road trips, the ocean. So much living crammed into every day. And then me in my room. Watering my plant. Making ramen. Cleaning my yellow bowls night after night after night.

‘It’s okay,’ I say. But it isn’t.

from ‘We are Not Alone
by Nina La Cour

Some people in the Western world — most people, perhaps, if you take at face value the world we see portrayed on social media, and on TV, and in the ads — live big, busy, crammed lives, like Mabel and Jacob in the passage above. They go overseas on holiday. Borrow money to buy houses and cars. Renovate and redecorate. Eat out at restaurants. Drink lattes with their friends. Bungee jump. Skydive. Buy new clothes each season, colour their hair so it doesn’t go grey, replace their smartphones with the latest model. The words vibrant and noisy come to mind. They are not the same things, and yet it can be hard to tell the difference, sometimes.

Me, I live a quiet life. A small life.

Partly, this is of my choosing, and partly it isn’t. Partly, it’s because a small life, a simple life, has always appealed to me; partly, it’s because that small life found its way to me a long while ago, and foisted itself upon me. And partly, too, the simple truth is that it’s difficult, when you’ve started down a small, narrow track, to turn around and retrace your steps. To find yourself out in the open. To start again.

Most of the time, I’m okay with this. But sometimes, like Marin, the eighteen-year-old narrator in the passage above, there are moments when it isn’t okay, after all.

Those moments pass. They do. But I think they’re worth acknowledging, every now and then.

Correa flower in blossom in Aldinga Scrub
May 2018
Small but beautiful, after all.

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.

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.

This quiet unknowing

Other people’s words about … dreams

I am trying to find my dog, which is going to be put down. Not a dog I live with in my waking life, but another, a black Labrador. The dog has already been taken away and is awaiting its death at a pound on the edge of town. This awful knowledge permeates my sleep. When I get there, however, my dog has gone. In its place, lying sick and exhausted on the concrete floor inside a large cage, is a young, very beautiful red setter. As I enter, the creature raises its head towards me and I see with slow shock that its muzzle has been sewn up with fishing line. The red dog pulls itself off the ground and limps towards me. Rising on its hind legs, it puts its forelegs on my shoulders, and rests its head against the left side of my neck. I can sense it begging me to save it. I feel great pity; I embrace and try to comfort it. But there is no sense that I can or will do anything to help it. The burden would be too great. Words come into my head. The dog’s name: Gadget. (Why Gadget? I wonder, even in the dream.) Then the thought — with which I am already justifying my decision to abandon it — that red setters are not very intelligent dogs. I step away. The animal stands there, hopeless. I touch it on the back and I leave.

What to do with a dream like that?

From ‘Anaesthesia
by Kate Cole-Adams

What to do, indeed?

I love the words in this passage: this description of a dream, which is vivid and haunting and bewildering all at once, as dreams so often are. Over time, Cole-Adams goes on to say, various astute readers have suggested to me that this particular dream might not belong in this particular book, that it is a dream that emanates from somewhere else and that ought to be left there …. And yet she includes the dream in her book anyway. In doing so, she allows herself to write intuitively, blindly, instinctively, knowing — knowing — that what she is writing must be written, but not knowing why.

In the quiet after waking I lay curled on my side suffused with the knowledge of irrevocable loss. I had betrayed the red dog. And in doing so I understood that I had disavowed some helpless, voiceless part of me. The dream did not feel like a dream. The house was still and very dark. I did not know what the dog had been trying to say, but I could still feel almost physically the place above my left shoulder where it had nuzzled its head against my neck, and I accepted finally that I could not write this book without it.

Do you sometimes have dreams like Cole-Adams’s dream — a dream that [does] not feel like a dream? Do you feel memories rising in you that feel more alive than memories should ever feel? Do you get a feeling of sickness in your gut that you know — you just know — isn’t a sickness; and yet it is, it is?

I do.

These days, I’m not much one for grand resolutions. I don’t know what path I’ll follow this year (though, in a more concrete sense, I know I’ll walk the sandy path in Aldinga Scrub, pictured above, over and over). I don’t know what 2018 holds, for me or for you.

I do hope, though, that there will be some moments like Cole-Adams describes, for you and for me: those quiet moments after waking when you do not disavow the helpless, voiceless part of you; those moments when you accept finally that you cannot otherwise do what it is you need to do.

The best-laid plans

Other people’s words about … waiting

Nick didn’t call me that morning, or that night. He didn’t call me the next day, or the day after that. Nobody did. Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen. I applied for jobs and turned up for seminars. Things went on.

From ‘Conversations with Friends
by Sally Rooney

I hadn’t planned to write this post. I thought that I would be — I planned to be — too busy to post anything between now and next week. I had family celebrations planned, after all, and a holiday trip away with a dear friend, and even a couple of shifts at work.

But I haven’t been well this Christmas, and so most of my plans for the holiday period so far haven’t eventuated.

Christmas is a tricky time, isn’t it? For some reason, I often get sick around this time of the year (and at other times of celebration). Like Sally Rooney’s narrator, Frances, in the passage above, I keep waiting for this to change, but the thing I am waiting for — not to get sick at Christmas, not to feel sad about getting sick at Christmas — continue[s] not to happen.

So why am I writing a post now, after all? Partly, I’m writing because I have unexpected time on my hands. Mostly, though, I’m writing because I wanted to reach out to other people who might also be feeling sad — whether unexpectedly or otherwise — this Christmas.

I don’t have any advice. I wish I did. The only thing I can find to do at times like this is to wait them out — which is ironic, given Rooney’s words above.

Still, whoever you are, wherever you are, if you are feeling sad right now, know this: you are not alone. Sadness is part and parcel of the deal.

And it passes.

Like the weather, like the tide, like footsteps in the sand, like all those hackneyed things — like Christmas, even — sadness, too, passes.

Walk on

Other people’s words about … things falling apart

When you’ve passed through a difficult period, it can be tempting to yearn for a delivery of good fortune, or for experience that feels redemptive somehow. You want suffering to have purpose, for pain to be justified by wisdom or abundance or growth.

from Weekend Reading
by Gena of The Full Helping blog

I had an odd weekend recently, going through some of my old journals and photos for writing-related reasons. The entries I’d written in my journals back then, during a time in my twenties when I lived overseas — first in Texas, then England, then Germany, Cairo, Jakarta — were vividly descriptive of a life I no longer lead, nor will ever lead again. Those journal entries threw me back to a ‘me’ I hadn’t exactly forgotten but somehow, foolishly, thought I had let go of.

Although I have let go of that me, mostly.

My life, during those years I lived overseas, was filled with extremes — of loneliness, joy, excitement, fear, love, doubt, sorrow, terror, grief. There was one particularly difficult period, living in Jakarta with my then boyfriend, when one thing after another went terribly wrong, and I felt as though I was walking through my days — those days that made up my life as I then knew it — with my head down, just waiting for the next blow.

Like Gena, in the words I’ve quoted above, sometimes in Jakarta I just wanted those most difficult days to have a meaning. A purpose. But they didn’t. Even now, when I look back on those times, I find them hard to make sense of. I think I always will.

Gena quotes the Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron, who says the following in her book When Things Fall Apart:

We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.

These days, I would quibble with Pema Chodron’s use of the word healing — isn’t that just another way of saying you can solve things? — but then, I’m not a Buddhist. Or a Nun.

Still, I like the notion of things falling apart and then coming together again, only to fall apart once more; I find it immensely comforting. Even more, I like Pema Chodron’s simple statement, neither defeatist not celebratory, that life is just like that.

It is just like that, isn’t it?


I took the photographs accompanying today’s posts during our most recent camping trip in Yorke Peninsula. It was mid-November, and the late-spring flowers dappled the dunes. Fan flowers, common sea heath, grasses, sedges, acacias and other flowers I couldn’t identify and don’t usually see at home had sprung up everywhere, in every bare patch of sandy ground, in every sheltered nook, in every little cranny in the rocks. Walking amongst them, I felt things come together again in my heart, for a little while.

And then — well, then I let go. And walked on.