Chasing clouds

Other people’s words about … getting lost

I said earlier that I have no special running talents. In fact, I have one: getting lost.

No-one gets lost like I do. It’s not just a running thing. It’s a getting lost thing.

I’ve been lost when running, walking, driving, cycling, sailing, using public transport, even (once) taking a taxi, on at least three continents, since I first ventured out into the world as an unaccompanied teenager. I’ve temporarily abandoned a car in Milton Keynes, and once phoned [my wife] Clare from the outskirts of Northampton to warn her that I might not find my way home for days. I’ve never been lost on a running track (yet), but I have been lost indoors — not just temporarily disoriented, but properly, sit-down-and-cry-and-wait-to-die lost — on a disastrous visit to the Birmingham branch of Ikea.

From ‘Running Free’
by Richard Askwith

I am someone who gets lost as easily as Richard Askwith. I live in Australia, not England, so I’ve never got lost in Milton Keynes or Northampton, but I have certainly been to the Adelaide branch of Ikea and experienced that sense of utter lostness that he so delightfully describes as sit-down-and-cry-and-wait-to-die lost. (Though, actually, I would call that particular kind of ‘lost’ an Ikea thing rather than a getting lost thing. Just saying … )


Dune’s counterpane:
How can you ever feel lost when these are the things you see along your way?

I don’t just get lost physically, either. I frequently feel lost in a metaphorical sense, too. I admire anyone who seems to know (or who feels as though they know) where they are going in life. I don’t. I never have. The older I get, the more strongly I become aware of my inner sense of lostness.

Often, this innate sense of lostness feels like a burden. But not always. Because the thing about setting off towards one place and ending up somewhere else entirely, somewhere you hadn’t planned on and don’t recognise at all, is that you get the chance to explore.


Lizzie the garden cat:
A lost cat, but also a found one.

I’m talking metaphorically here again, of course. But the older I get, the more strongly I also come to understand the importance of being willing to explore, willing to wander, willing to wonder. And sometimes, in hopeful moments, I see many years of exploring and wandering and wondering ahead of me.

I like that thought.

Lately I’ve been reading …

That dark ocean

Other people’s words about … rescue

A look of doubt came across my mother’s face. It was all there in her expression. The knowledge that a person can become lost in their life, how you might swim in the waters and reach for the lifebuoys but never be rescued, might drown out there in the dark ocean of your choices.

From ‘The Inland Sea’
by Madeleine Watts

When I was a young woman receiving treatment for my eating disorder, I used to agonise over every decision I made, whether the decision was a tiny one (like what percentage of fat the yoghurt I ate should contain) or whether the decision was a life-affecting one (like what career path I should follow, or whether I should follow a career path at all). For a year or so I saw a community mental health nurse who would say to me over and over, whenever I ruminated over my decision-making processes, ‘Rebecca, there are no wrong or right decisions, no good or bad choices. There are just better ones.’

At the time, I found this woman’s words comforting. Certainly, her counsel helped me to dither less — and dithering less, for someone who had spent all her life dithering and equivocating and stalling, could only be a good thing.


Path to the horizon.

But now that I am an older woman, I wince slightly when I remember the words of that community nurse. First, like the mother of Madeleine Watts’s narrator in the passage I’ve quoted above, I am only too aware that the decisions we make in our lives can lead us down paths with destinations that are not at all what we thought they would be when we set out on them. And sometimes those paths we follow are paths with no return — paths we can only keep on walking down, no matter how lost we may feel while we walk down them.


Path through the clouds. (Look closely!)


Second, I’m even more aware that the concept of choice itself may be illusory. For a variety of reasons, those of us living in Western societies are sold the idea that we can choose how to lead our lives, choose the outcomes that lie ahead of us.* But the older I become — the older I am lucky enough to become, I should say — the more I find myself acknowledging that there are many things over which we have no control at all. You can make as many decisions and choices as deliberately or spontaneously as you like, but life often happens anyway — in its own way.

I’m conscious of talking in clichés here. Still, it’s clear to me, at the ripe old age of fifty-one, that in the end the most important decisions we make in our lives are not about what we will do but about how we will choose to respond to the cards that life has dealt us.

* I use the word ‘sold’ deliberately.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Chasing clouds

Other people’s words about … running

Once he warmed up, once the tension was gone, once the sweat had properly broken and his breathing was rhythmically heavy and every twinge of stiffness and pain from previous workouts had been obliterated by adrenaline and endorphins, when all of that had happened, there was almost nowhere on earth he’d rather be, even on up-and-down back roads with no shoulder or, as now, on the old railroad path too crowded with entitled cyclists or groups of power-walking mums in their pastel tops and self-crimped hair.

For forty-five minutes, or an hour, or an hour and a half, the world was his, and he was alone in it. Blissfully, wonderfully, almost sacredly alone.

From ‘Release’
by Patrick Ness

One of the things I think I most love about running is that the act itself is so full of mysterious contradictions. For example, it’s hard work, and yet I look forward to it as a luxurious treat, in much the same way I look forward to eating an oversized piece of decadent chocolate cake. Similarly, when I’m running I feel as though I’m moving purposefully forward, following a path to something new. And yet it’s obvious that, unless your plan when you set out is to run away and never return, any run is circular, ending right back where it began.

Even the sense that I am on my own when I run — blissfully, wonderfully, almost sacredly alone, as Patrick Ness puts it in the excerpt above — is unreliable. I am never alone when I run. I run on roads, on shared paths, on trails, on beaches. There are always others inhabiting the space with me, running or walking or cycling or just sitting on a bench enjoying the view (like the views you see in the photographs I took for this post). Running, even for a lone runner like me, is an entirely communal activity.

Another contradiction: sometimes, when I feel unwell — headachey, perhaps, or queasy or tired or sleep-deprived — I know that from the moment I step outside those symptoms will leave me for the duration of my run. Probably, I’ll feel unwell again afterwards; running isn’t ever, in my experience, a cure. But for those fifteen or thirty or forty-five minutes when my feet are drumming the ground in the old, familiar rhythm, I know I’ll be symptom-free.

I have no explanation for this. It’s just part and parcel of this beloved thing I know as running.

Maybe that’s why running appeals to so many different kinds of people — because the concept itself, what it involves, what it means, is so flexible, so all-encompassing. Some of us run to lose weight; some of us run to get fit; some of us run to break records; some of us run to find joy. Whatever the reason, those of us who are physically lucky enough to be able to consider running for the long term, in whatever fashion we can manage, have one thing in common.

We know it makes us feel like a better version of ourselves.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Perspective

Other people’s words about … the way we look at things

In the sky [above the garden] a plane glints, tiny as a metal cracker toy, and draws a roar reduced to a whisper after it, as it follows the flight path over Bexford Hill towards distant Heathrow. There’s always a plane up there if you look, near or far, visible or only betrayed by a line of vapour, but always moving westwards … It’s as if the aeroplanes were part of the mechanism of the garden; a necessary part. As if this tidy patch of lawn surrounded by its fence, with its brilliant blossoms too many to count and its coiled yellow hose, together formed the bottom half of a machine of bliss, which required for its complete working the dome of sky above, and for the furthest component of its clockwork the timekeeping planes on their celestial track. Patiently they tick from east to west. Or perhaps they are joined to the sky, and it is the sky that is moving, a blue sphere studded with occasional silver that cranks around, and around, and around.

From ‘Light Perpetual’
by Francis Spufford

I love the way Francis Spufford, in the passage above, turns on its head the way we usually look at a place that is deeply familiar to us to create a whole new way of looking at it.

Sometimes maybe that’s all we need, right? A new perspective.

One day this week: A blue world.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been busy editing and working and making, meanwhile, small decisions about the way I plan to work from now on. I say they were small decisions and they were, really, but in some ways — the best ways — they have transformed the way I feel about how I live my daily life.

Over the years I’ve read a great deal about the benefits of cognitive behavioural therapy, which in essence is a therapy that aims to help a person change the way they think so that they can overcome their own particular mental obstacles.


Another day the same week: A grey world.

But I’ve never found much resonance in cognitive therapy. For me, it’s less about changing the way I think about things than it is about changing the way I see things.

Semantics, you think? Maybe. But it works for me.

Lately I’ve been reading …

How you receive the world

Other people’s words about … being vulnerable

But still she couldn’t sleep. The window was open and bare. The curtain had fallen down and no-one had bothered to put it back up because it always fell down again when you tried to pull it across. Ada was afraid that something bad was in the garden. The trees creaked. The night swam through the window and came into the room like a river.

From ‘The Last Summer of Ada Bloom’
by Martine Murray

Sometimes things are not as they seem. Sometimes the world outside seems dark and threatening, as Ada perceives it to be in Martine Murray’s gorgeous words quoted above — even when it is not.

In my last blog post, I wrote about some bad feedback that I thought I’d been given about a project I’ve been working on for a very long time. It turns out that that feedback wasn’t what it seemed at first to me, and that I’d been wrong in my interpretation of it. It turns out that there is hope for that project, after all.

Sometimes it depends on how you look at things, and on how you receive the world.

How you look at it: Darkness or light?

The project I was referring to was one I’d worked on for a long time, although over the years my commitment to it had wavered and waxed and waned. Sometimes I’d tried to run away from it, but every time I did, I would find myself returning to it, unable to abandon it until I knew that I had seen it through, no matter what the outcome would be. Towards the end I lost all sense of joy in my work on that project. It became a self-imposed duty, something I had to do regardless of the outcome, regardless of how I myself felt about it, regardless of how much time or energy or wellbeing it demanded of me. That’s why, when I thought that the feedback I’d received on it implied that I might have to do some more work in order to get it across the line, I wrote: And I do not (yet) know if I have the energy or the moral courage to do that work. I truly do not know.

In the days after I received that feedback, as I tried to work through my response, a kind friend asked me if I had ever listened to Brene Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability. I had heard of Brene Brown but I had never listened to her talk, nor I had I ever read any of her material. Without knowing anything about her, I had written her off as some kind of New Age guru or self-help profiteer. But I respect this friend a great deal, and in addition I was feeling so vulnerable that I figured listening to someone else talk about vulnerability might not be such a bad thing. So I sat down and listened to the talk, and within the first two minutes I found myself weeping.

Have you listened to it? If you haven’t, I can only recommend that you do. It is a humble speech, filled with common sense and humorous insight. It is a talk about how we long to connect with each other, and how important it is for us not to be afraid to connect, and what it takes to do so. For me, listening to Brown was a lightning moment. I wish a lot of things, but in relation to this project one of the things I most wish is that I had reached out earlier while I was working on it. I wish I had been unafraid to ask for feedback or advice right back in the early stages. I wish I had been willing to say to someone: This is what I’m working on, and it’s not working, and I don’t know why.

I didn’t, because I was seeking perfection. I didn’t, because I felt too vulnerable. But there is no such thing as perfection. And sometimes you have to be willing to feel vulnerable to move on.

This is Brene Brown’s TED talk, if you want to listen to it.

How you look at it: cute or wild?

In the aftermath of all of this, I feel exhausted and fragile. I still don’t know what will happen now that my project is out in the world (although I promise that I’ll tell you when I find out). At the same time, I feel as though I’ve learned something that I needed to know — not just about that project, but about myself. That’s another reason that it’s important to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It’s the only way we can learn.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Say it loud, say it true

Other people’s words about … writing

Dan sits at his desk [to write his book] and closes the door to the hall, to the world. Winter unfolds around the cottage, June to July, and time flutters to the ground like pages. Too few pages. Never enough.

From ‘The Breeding Season’
by Amanda Niehaus

A few weeks ago, right at the end of my first week in my new job, I spent a weekend with a group of women who are writers and artists, some of whom I’d known for many years, a couple of whom I’d never met before. We walked along the beach, and we talked, and we laughed, and we ate, and we drank gin and tonic. And then we parted ways again, some of us driving back along the winding coastal roads towards the city to a life made entirely of writing and drawing, some of us driving back to a life made partly of writing and partly of child-rearing or paid work outside of the home.

Lunch break view (1): Climbing the mast

The woman who had organised the weekend had planned it, loosely, as a writers’ retreat, and indeed some of the women — a couple of whom had strict deadlines to meet with their publishers — did write during the weekend. The rest of us sat outside around a table on the sun-drenched balcony, sharing stories of our writing: our latest work in progress, recent reviews, launches we’d attended, talks we’d given, and so on.

I say we and us, but the first-person pronoun sits queasily with me, because I haven’t published anything for ten years, and because I’ve been through periods in recent years where I’ve consciously stopped writing altogether and tried to move on to other things in my life. This year, during the early months of my freelance life, I started writing again, but the process has continued to feel tentative, precarious (that word again!), and filled with doubt and fear.

Lunch break view (2): Red and blue

And so I felt a little like an intruder at that sun-splashed table on the balcony overlooking the sea. Sure, I have stories to tell about writing and about the books I’ve written, but they’re stories anchored in the past, not the present. Mostly, then, I stayed silent, without contributing when the talk turned back to writing. I listened to the things my companions were discussing, the things they said they thought about as they wrote. And as I listened, I reflected — as I have so many times over the last year or two — that what stops me from writing these days (or, more accurately, what stops me from completing any of the writing I start these days) isn’t so much a lack of confidence in my writing as it is a lack of confidence in my self: who I am, where I fit in the world. What I experience. What I think. What I stand for. What I believe. What I feel.

What I want to say.

Lunch break view (3): Seagull companion

For me, writing has always been about having a voice. In essence, it’s about having a conversation on the page with my readers. And so, implicitly, it’s about feeling that I have the right to express myself, to speak up, to tell a story: my story. It makes sense, then, that in the last few years, as I’ve found it increasingly hard to talk aloud — in conversation, I mean, to family, to friends, to peers, to colleagues — about the way I experience the world, my world, I have also found it increasingly hard to write.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever write or publish another book again in my life, and I understand that, in the scheme of things, whether I do or not is probably neither here nor there. But I do know that in order to write again, I will have to learn to believe in my voice once more, and to be able to listen to myself somehow, and to manage to see myself not as an intruder but as someone who belongs in this world. Until I can do these things, I will keep letting those pages of mine — the actual pages and the metaphorical ones, the pages of time, the pages of my life — flutter, like Dan’s in the passage I’ve quoted above, to the ground.

Weekend view: under the arch

Sometimes when I write posts like this on my blog, they feel self-indulgent, self-referential, self-absorbed. And perhaps my posts are all of these things. But perhaps, too, there’s a reader out there somewhere, reading this post, who has felt (some of) the things I’m writing about today, and who hears her voice reflected back to her as she reads. I want you to know, reader out there, that you are not alone in this world. Your voice matters. Your short life matters. You matter.

So go on, say what you have to say: and say it loud, say it true. This world, this life, belongs to you, too.

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.