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 …

Astonished

Other people’s words about … ageing

When I was thirty, I felt sure that a paradoxical reward awaited me at sixty, if I made it that far. Having never had any beauty to lose, I reasoned, I’d be exempted from mourning its loss. But as I’ve grown older, this proposition has turned inside out. I see now that I did have at least some beauty — not much, but some — and exactly because I had so little, I could hardly afford to lose it. Now, at this inconvenient moment, I realise that I do care about my looks. I find myself spending more energy compensating for my inadequacies than I used to. I search for becoming clothes. I color my hair. I experiment, in a gingerly [sic] way, with makeup. I suspect these efforts don’t do a lot for me, though they do make some difference, if only in letting people know I’m trying.

From ‘At Sixty-Five’
by Emily Fox Gordon

I am closer to fifty years old than I am to sixty-five: my fiftieth birthday is next year, 2020. And yet, already I understand that inconvenient moment Emily Fox Gordon describes in the passage above.

When I was a young woman — that is to say, when I was in my twenties and thirties — I went makeup-free. I washed my (uncoloured) hair and let it drip dry; I applied nothing other than sunblock to my skin (not even moisturiser). And, oh, I bought all my clothes from op-shops: jeans, shirts, trousers for work, jackets. I still remember the pretty, floral-patterned strappy dress I bought from my local St Vincent’s op-shop to wear to my niece-in-law’s wedding, which cost $3. I happened to be very thin at the time, because of a digestive illness, and within six months of the wedding, I was well again, which meant that I could no longer fit into it. But I kept that dress for years afterwards. Every now and then, I would pull it out of my wooden chest to look at it: to run my fingers over the soft, thin, flowered fabric.

$3! To prepare for the wedding, I’d pulled the dress over my head twenty minutes beforehand, brushed my hair and tied it back in an elastic band, slipped on a pair of sandals (the only pair I owned), and then spent a couple of minutes debating over whether I’d need a (secondhand) jacket or not, because it was an outdoor wedding, and there was a cool breeze blowing through my window. And then I grabbed my partner’s hand, and we left for the wedding.

Yorke Peninsula: View from the cliffs

If you had asked me during those years what guided my fashion style, I would have said — very proudly, very innocently — that I went for a ‘natural’ look. What I wouldn’t have said, because I didn’t yet realise it, was that I went for a young, natural look. I didn’t yet understand that the word ‘natural’, when it comes to a woman’s beauty, her appearance, is synonymous with the word ‘young’. I couldn’t have understood it back then. I was too young.

*

I found Fox Gordon’s essay in The Best American Essays 2014, a copy of which I borrowed from my local library to take with me on our latest camping trip to Yorke Peninsula. (Yes, I’m still enjoying reading essays.) It is a short essay, as essays go, but it is wise and witty and forthright, and almost every word in it rings true for me. (You can read it in its entirety here.)

Thirty years ago I assumed I would take the eccentric route as I aged, become one of those bluff, outspoken, truth-telling old women people claim to admire, even as they avoid them. That would have been in keeping with my strong contrarian impulse. But instead of growing bolder and more heedless, I seem to be growing more circumspect, more nervously observant of the proprieties, more conscious of other people’s feelings.

Now that I’m (almost) fifty, I, too, find myself becoming more circumspect, both in the way I dress and in the way I speak and act. I feel [my age] in my invisibility to strangers, Fox Gordon writes. And it fascinates me — no, let me be honest here: it astonishes me — that as women like Fox Gordon, women like me, grow more invisible, we grow in tandem more worried about how other people perceive us. This is a contrarian impulse that we could, perhaps, never have predicted when we were younger — again, precisely because we were younger.

Yorke Peninsula again: Clouds, reflected

*

The day after we got back from Yorke Peninsula, I rode my bike to Semaphore, where I often go to buy my groceries and to borrow my library books. I parked and locked my bike outside the sushi shop, bought a sushi roll, and then wandered down the main street towards the library. There was a woman at the ATM as I walked by, her back to me as she withdrew her cash. She was around my age, or perhaps a little older: tall, lean, wearing easy, worn clothes, her hair tied back in a long, straight, grey ponytail. She had a slender face but a strong profile: short eyelashes, pointy nose. No makeup, as far as I could tell. I glanced at her as I walked by — once, and then again. Then again.

I thought of Fox Gordon. I thought of the old(er) woman I hope I will one day become. It came to me, then, that I was looking right at her, my role model, standing at the ATM in all her natural, worn, grey beauty.

There is room, I believe, for all of us. We can be contrarian, if we dare.

Yorke Peninsula again: Three clouds

Lately I’ve been reading about …

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

This new place

Lately I’ve been reading … essays

What makes an essay an essay? Does it have to be scholarly? Does it need a central argument? Must it be informative? Can it be purely autobiographical? How literary, how poetic, how lyrical can an essay — any kind of essay — be?

As William Deresiewicz observed in an essay about essays for the Atlantic, ‘what makes a personal essay an essay and not just an autobiographical narrative is precisely that it uses personal material to develop, however speculatively or intuitively, a larger conclusion.’
Is that, then, the definition of an essay? Everyone has their own theory. According to my own (evolving) criteria, an essay is not a poem (nonfiction though a poem often is); nor is it a speech which operates according to rhythmic and textual laws of its own. Not all works of journalism, memoir or criticism are essays, though they can be if they reach beyond their subject and offer more, including the capacity to move … That’s about as far as my definition goes.

From Anna Goldsworthy’s introduction
in ‘‘The Best Australian Essays’ 2017
Edited by Anna Goldsworthy

As a young woman, I focused my reading solely on works of fiction, but the longer I live, the more curious I grow about the world: the way it works, and how I fit into it. Perhaps in response, I often find myself, these days, turning to nonfiction and, in particular, to essays — those nonfiction equivalents of fiction’s short stories. Like Anna Goldsworthy, quoted in the passage above, I particularly like the reach that some essays, the best essays, have — the places they can take you, if you let them.

Note:
For many years, Black Inc. publishers published an annual ‘Best Australian Essays’ volume. The series has recently ceased, but you can see the back catalogue here.