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 …

Prayer

Other people’s words about … books

After Bunty died, days slid into one another like the colours in a sunset. Whole afternoons passed as Christabel drank tea in the kitchen … If there was a book in front of her, she would look away frequently and forget to turn its pages — she no longer read in the old, urgent way. The taste for reading had started to withdraw from her; she felt it pulling gently away, like a tide. Books contained hard truths, waiting like splinters in their pages. Over the years, many had lodged in her unnoticed. Little anticipations of life’s awfulness, they might have served as a defence against it but pierced instead with knowledge of damage, error, waste.

From ‘The Life to Come’
by Michelle de Kretser

CS Lewis once wrote that we read fiction and literature to seek an enlargement of our being; we read because [w]e want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own. I don’t subscribe to Lewis’s Christian practices and beliefs, but I do — oh, I do — subscribe to his views on reading.

And so Michelle de Kretser’s words in the passage above affected me deeply. I cannot imagine a life in which [t]he taste for reading had started to withdraw from me; the thought that the truths I treasure finding within a book’s pages might begin to feel like splinters horrifies me.

Reading for me is an activity that provides solace. The solace comes most strongly from finding kinship within the pages of the books I read: kinship with the book’s characters, and, vicariously, with the book’s writer, who created the characters. That’s not quite what Lewis is saying, but it’s part of it, I think: it’s hidden in his words. When de Kretser’s character Christabel finds herself losing the taste for reading, losing the urgency that was inherent for her in the act, what she is really experiencing is loss. Loneliness. Desolation.

If I was a praying person, as Lewis certainly was, I would offer up a prayer here, in response to de Kretser’s words. I would pray: Please don’t let me ever experience this particular form of loss.

I would pray: Please don’t let me lose the companionship of books.

I would pray: Please don’t let the tide go out.

Please.

Prayer

Rift

How we see ourselves

Stella had noticed that the woman in [the painting] ‘The Jewish Bride’ wore pearls. Also earrings. Maybe that was why she looked so intimately self-assured. Stella hadn’t had her ears pierced until her sixtieth birthday. She’d been squeamish about it but thought the pain would be balanced by the confidence the look would give her. She would become — finally — a woman taking her own decisions, a woman with authority over herself.

From ‘Midwinter Break’
by Bernard MacLaverty

The year I turned fifteen, I grew up, physically. That was the year that I turned from a slightly plump, almost-flaxen-haired girl into an adolescent woman with breasts and hips and thighs and lank, dirty-blonde hair. I wasn’t the kind of girl to celebrate any of these things: in fact, I wanted to turn back the clock. I didn’t want breasts and hips and thighs and lank, dirty-blonde hair. I wanted something else. I wanted to look the way I thought I had once looked, but I knew that I couldn’t. Not any more.

The strange thing is that the way I’d thought I had once looked as a child wasn’t the way I had actually looked as a child. I’d thought — all my life I’d thought this — that I had been skinny and elfin and girlish. In fact, I hadn’t been that at all, ever. But it wasn’t until my mid- to late teens that I understood this.

When I did, I was deeply shocked.

Looking for the horizon (1)
(that line of disconnect between the sky and the sea)

Somewhere around the time of that realisation, and for a long time afterwards, I stopped eating enough. I’ve touched on this act of mine — of abstinence — before. In the early years, it was a conscious, deliberate act: an effort to force my body to a level of thinness that I thought had once been my natural state. Later, it became both a less strict and a less conscious act; indeed, it became more of a process than an act. I think that what I was trying to do, all those years, was to make abstinence a part of who I was, rather than all that I did.

It took a long to stop doing this, and even longer to stop trying to do it. In fact, it wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I really allowed myself to eat without any kind of enforced abstinence at all, though by then the things I abstained from were barely noticeable to anyone other than myself. Still, if such a thing as recovery from an eating disorder exists, that’s when it happened for me — halfway though my thirties. Not before.

But though I did eventually lose the compulsion to abstain, to this day I have still not lost the shock I feel when I am confronted with the real image of myself — in photos, in the mirror — as opposed to the image of myself that I carry around in my mind. I still think of myself, unconsciously, erroneously, as skinny and elfin and girlish. As light and slender and ethereal. As pretty. I am not any of these things, and I never have been; but that’s not how I feel.

I think we all live with a certain level of disconnect between the way we perceive ourselves and the way we actually are. You know that feeling you get when you turn forty (or fifty, or sixty, or seventy) and you think, ‘But I don’t feel like I’m forty (or fifty, or sixty, or seventy); I feel like I’m still twenty-five’? That’s the disconnect I mean, right there. I am not sure that everyone experiences it as strongly as I do: for me, it seems to run through my entire perception of myself. I’ve always had it, and always will; adolescence was just the first time that I was confronted with it. Even now, each time I am confronted once again with my misperception of myself — with the difference between the ‘me’ that people interact with and the ‘me’ that lives inside of me — I feel the same shock anew.

Looking for the horizon (2)

I like to think that this sense of disconnect between perception and reality is what Bernard MacLaverty is touching on, very lightly, very deftly, in the passage I’ve quoted above. Sixty-year-old Stella tells herself that getting her ears pierced will give her confidence; she genuinely believes that her new look will enable her to become a woman with authority over herself. But the earrings do not bring about the sense of intimate self-assurance that she seeks. Of course they don’t. Stella never becomes — finally — the woman she seeks to be: the woman she believes she is capable of being; the woman, I think, she secretly believes she might already be.

Perhaps here I’m reading too much into MacLaverty’s words. If nothing else, there is an affectionate sadness in his words to which I respond. Still, on those days when I feel deeply disconnected from my two selves, from the interacting ‘me’ and the internal ‘me’, I find solace in passages like his. I like to think that — like Stella, like me — you, too, are puzzled by the rift between your internal you and your external you. I like to think that you, too, feel as though there is a different — a better, a lovelier, a lonelier — you inside of you than anyone ever sees.

I like to think this, because thinking it lessens somehow the sense of disconnect I have between your experience and mine: between your world and mine. That, at least, is a point of connection. And a connection is the opposite of a rift, after all: it is a kind of affinity.

From one year to the next

Other people’s words about … loneliness

She had told herself more than once not to call it loneliness, since it wasn’t any different from one year to the next, it was just how her body felt, like hungry or tired, except it was always there, always the same. Now and again she had distracted herself from it for a while. And it always came back and felt worse.

from ‘Lila
by Marilynne Robinson

A couple of years ago, I began to experience recurrent bouts of unexplained nausea. The waves of sickness came every three or four weeks, and left me feeling depleted and frustrated. My symptoms of illness were made more difficult by the fear that accompanied them: a fear that I’ve touched on here and here, and will no doubt touch on again.

In her memoir Slipstream, Elizabeth Jane Howard mentions in passing a phase in her life, when she was a young woman, during which she experienced something like this.

In those days, I had bouts of being unable to eat that sometimes lasted for weeks. This seemed to be one of them. I was very tired from my illness, but encouragement to build up my strength by these kindly people was of no avail. I’d sit before an immense juicy steak and delicious salad, trying to swallow the first pieces of meat, my stomach heaving, and wanting to cry from embarrassment. ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t eat much,’ I had to say.

It was my mother who, just recently, introduced me to Slipstream. When I read the passage above, I wished that Howard was still alive, so that I could write to her and thank her for these words. It helps, when you are going through difficult times, or when you are experiencing something troubling and bewildering for which you yourself have no words, to read someone else’s words on the same thing. Here is Howard again:

I had no energy for writing, I didn’t like living alone, and I could hardly drag myself to the office every other week to earn the six pounds that barely kept the wolf from the door … I remember the misery of sitting in restaurants faced with enormous menus and finally asking for something like a piece of cold chicken only some of which I managed to force down.

During the worst phase of my own bouts of nausea, I felt my life began to fold in on itself. Although I wasn’t ill all the time — although there were days and weeks when I felt well: days, even, when I felt as though I’d never feel sick again — those bouts took a toll on me. I called in sick at work frequently, and worried about the consequences. (Would I be put on a performance plan? Would I get sacked? What if I couldn’t hold my job down anymore? How would I live with myself if I couldn’t make a living?) I worried about my social life. (What if I lost all my friends because I kept cancelling on them at the last moment? What if they didn’t believe me when I told them I was sick? What if they thought I was just neurotic, or antisocial?) And I fretted about people in my family, whom I wanted to see more frequently than I did. (Did they know I still loved them? Did my absence hurt them? Were they, too, judging me?) I began to feel disabled on all fronts — by my symptoms of illness, by my fear of those symptoms, and by my shame about my fear.

The sickness happens less often now, I am glad to say, though it still comes, accompanied by symptoms that feel worse than they sound: fatigue, headaches, nausea, heavy eyes, weak limbs. I am as yet to find a cause. In the meantime, when I do experience bouts of illness like this, I try not to let myself feel the way I felt during that worst phase. Isolated is one word that comes to mind to describe the way I felt. Lonely is another.

And here is where reading helps. Reading Howard’s words I feel a sense of kinship. The kinship makes me reflect, as I so often do, that writing is an act of sharing, and that sometimes — sometimes — reading can feel like a defence against loneliness.

It wasn’t until I read Toni Bernhard’s How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness that it finally became clear to me that illness — whether it’s serious or mild, whether it’s intermittent or constant, whether it’s accompanied by fear or not — is, inherently, lonely. Experienced long-term, it is all the more so. Bernhard, who lives with a fatigue-related chronic illness that keeps her largely bedridden, is illuminating on the theme. She writes:

In these moments when I accept that some of the people I know may never understand what life with chronic illness is like for me, I’m able to let go of the painful longing and fruitless desire for them to behave as I want them to. It’s like putting down a heavy load because I’m finally giving up a fight I cannot win. This gives rise to equanimity –- that calm sense of peace and well-being with my life as it is, whether others understand it or not.

Read those sentences again: Some of the people I know may never understand. Those words go to the heart of loneliness. So do these: painful longing. Fruitless desire. Illness should not entail any of these kinds of feelings, but it does. It is a very lonely experience. (If you are experiencing illness-related loneliness, I highly recommend Bernhard’s book. Her words are both wise and comforting. They may even impart a sense of kinship.)

The main character in Marilynne Robinson’s book, from which I quoted at the top of this post, is lonely in another way. Lila’s loneliness is the result of poverty and an extreme lack of love in her upbringing, and her experience of it is utterly embodied. I’ve never heard loneliness described this way before, but I find the interpretation as enlightening as Bernhard’s. Loneliness, Robinson is saying, is a physical — a visceral — thing. It is as much a part of living as hunger and fatigue; it is with us from our first breath to our last. Like illness, it is a part of the cycle of being alive in this world.

dscn3063

Perhaps the difficulty we have with loneliness, then, is not so much with its actual presence, nor with its cause — whatever that may be — as it is with the way we experience it and interpret it. I find this thought strangely consoling.

Is it possible to feel consolation and loneliness simultaneously? Probably — but it’s much harder.

Note:
There are a number of bloggers who write about their experience of living with serious or long-term illness. Here is where the blogging community comes into its own! Two bloggers whose frank, clear-sighted words on illness I particularly admire are Elana Amsterdam of Elana’s Pantry, who lives with Multiple Sclerosis and writes about managing her illness through a grain-free diet and a low-stress lifestyle, and Ali Feller from Ali on the Run, a passionate runner who blogs about living (and running) with Crohn’s Disease.

The balloon seller

Other people’s words about … loneliness

[Bhima] lowers her voice until she is whispering. ‘You see, I think [the balloon seller] could’ve helped me … face what was to come later in my own life. He had the secret, see? The secret of loneliness. How to live with it, how to wrap it around your body and still be able to make beautiful, colourful things …’

from The space between us
by Thrity Umgar*

In this novel, the balloon seller is a minor character: wise, but humble.
He makes loneliness beautiful.
That’s no mean feat.

*Note:
I realise that this is my second post in a row quoting from Umgar’s wonderful novel. I found the book in our local library recently, as I browsed the shelves. It stayed with me long after I finished reading it.