Under big skies

Other people’s words about … the moon over the sea

He lay across the bed on top of the bedspread [in his room in the cottage by the sea]. Moon shadows of trees outside fell against the pine-based walls. The bedspread was tinged a bluish white, its pattern of roses transformed to a lunar landscape. He had forgotten about the particular lustre of a seaward moon. How when a moon hung over the ocean they were not separate entities, but a third element fused from their continuous correspondence. The planks of the cottage walls appeared fastened together by this faint glow.

From ‘The Dependents’
by Katharine Dion

I love Katharine Dion’s description, here, of the moon hanging over the sea. Years ago, when I worked the late shift, I used to drive home afterwards to our beach shack south of the city. The drive took me just under an hour, and by the time I turned off the main road onto the esplanade, it would be nearly midnight. From my car, I could see the beach beyond the cliffs, the waves rolling in to meet the shore and then falling back. The water was the colour of black ink, and on clear nights the moon hung above it in just the way Dion describes: as though it was connected to the ocean, as though the two were in communication with each other.

I would turn off the esplanade onto our own road feeling freed of the shift I’d just worked, returned to the life I wanted to live, by the ocean, under big skies.

Evening skies

I haven’t worked the late shift for years now, but I still feel the same gratitude for the house where I live, for the ocean at the end of the road, for the moon and the sun and the sky over the water, which I see every night and every day.

Every night. Every day.

The ocean at the end of the road

Lately I’ve been reading about …

On purpose

Other people’s words about … meaning

Some people … believe they have to find their purpose to live fully … [But] it is perfectly fine — and in fact recommended — to simply live each of your moments fully and marvel at it all. What if that is your purpose?

From ‘The Energy Guide
by Dr Libby Weaver

I am not much one for self-help books, these days, especially ones that focus on how to find happiness or health. I don’t think — as I did when I was younger, as young people so often do — that health and happiness are things you can seek out or earn, or that they are things you can, or should, feel entitled to.

But I do like Libby Weaver’s words here, even though her book falls squarely into that category of books I’ve just derided. I like her words because what else does it make sense to do other than to simply live each of your moments fully, no matter what each of those moments is like, or what is happening during it? What better thing can we do as we live out our days than marvel at it all?

Weaver goes on to say:

Consider that the real purpose of anyone’s life is to be fully involved in living. Be present for the journey. Act on what you care about.

You could call the attitude Weaver is advocating mindful, if you so chose. Or you could call it sensible. Or humble. Or grateful. Whatever you call it, I think it’s an attitude worth cultivating.

Winter sunrise: be present.

Because unlike health and happiness, unlike riches and freedom, unlike love and success, unlike youth and beauty, unlike wisdom and intelligence, being fully involved in living is achievable. It’s not always easy, but it’s possible.

And that, I think, is a good place to start.

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.

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.

Big

Other people’s words about … sunsets

The sun was setting. There were plenty of natural phenomena that went unrecognised (snowflakes kissing a windowsill, fingernails dug into the skin of a tangerine), but Cameron could see why people made such a big deal of sunsets. The sunset at Pine Ridge Point always made Cameron feel so disastrously human, caged inside his own susceptible self.

From ‘Girl in Snow
by Danya Kukafka

I found Danya Kukafka’s words in the passage above very poignant — although when I watch the sun set, I feel, unlike her character Cameron, as though I am escaping the cage of my susceptible [human] self to join with the rest of the natural world.

For me, both the sense of bigness, and the sense of being a tiny part of that bigness, make me feel at once grounded and free. Perhaps some of the photos below, which I took on a number of evenings this past January and February, might give you that sense, too?

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.

Exquisite

Other people’s words about … surfing

[My wife Caroline] was reading on a hotel balcony directly above the break. The waves were head-high, barely clearing the rocks on the sets. After every ride, I would look up. Caroline’s nose would still be in her book. I would yell. She would wave. She saw none of my rides. When I finally came in and complained, she tried to explain, not for the first time, how exquisitely boring it was to watch surfing. The lulls between sets seemed to go on for hours. There had been, it was true, some fairly long lulls.

My complaints were trivial, actually, not deeply felt. Caroline indulged my surf fever, even its most juvenile moments, beyond anything I had a right to expect, and I consciously tried never to lose sight of that fact. As indifferent as she was to the ocean and all things surf, our life together was braided with waves. They were a backdrop, a gravitational force, and rarely far away.

From ‘Barbarian Days’
by William Finnegan

Like William Finnegan and his wife Caroline, my life with my partner (and my dog) is braided with waves. I was a suburban child: we had a swimming pool in our backyard, which we swam in on hot summer days after school. The beach was a half-hour car trip away, and my parents reserved it for winter time: long walks in the wind and drizzle, wrapped in coats and scarves and gloves.

After I left home, and after I came home from my years-long travels overseas, I lived in a series of share households by the beach. I met my partner in my late twenties, when he was in his mid-thirties. We began to fall for each other very soon after we met, and only a few weeks after he had come into my life, he took me on a trip to the coast down south. It was Christmas, and his parents needed help towing and setting up their caravan for their annual holiday in the caravan park at Port Elliott. Later, after the caravan was set up and his parents were settled, we slipped away to the beach for some time alone.

And so our life together by the beach began.

Because of my partner’s lifelong passion for surfing, our holidays and camping trips have always been ocean-based. We have spent time in Yorke Peninsula (and indeed, I took the photos in today’s post on our latest trip to Yorkes, in mid-November), Eyre Peninsula, Western Australia, and various spots in our own coastal area, Fleurieu Peninsula; and when we are on holiday, in between the time we spend together on the beach and in the caravan (or, in the early days, the tent), my partner slips off to surf.

As Finnegan so succinctly puts it, the waves are a backdrop, a gravitational force to our lives; they are rarely far away.

I smiled with rueful recognition when I read Finnegan’s description of his wife Caroline’s indifference to all things surf. Oh, yes. But I suspect that, despite everything, Caroline is also grateful for the things that life with a surfer has brought her. As for me, the lifestyle I now lead, living by the coast, camping on cliffs that overlook the sea, wandering lonely shores, is one I am intensely grateful for.

If I had my time all over again, I would choose this life, over and over again.

I would choose it, as I do now, with astonishment and joy.