On wonder, and grief

Other people’s words about … this amazing world

Look at the sky. (It’s amazing. It’s always amazing.)

From ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’
by Matt Haig

I’ve found myself at a loss for words to write in here recently. The loss of words carries over to images, too, and therefore to other media like my Instagram account — I haven’t taken a photograph for weeks. I haven’t even been able to pick up a pen and write in my own diary.

I am, in general, someone who is readily able to immerse myself in the wonder of the natural world. The photographs I take and post, here and on Instagram, of the scrub and the sea and the sky and the sand and the sunset, are the physical manifestation of this. The habit of wondering is one I taught myself, years ago, as a way to manage the bouts of anxiety and sadness I’ve always experienced. Call it mindfulness, call it relaxation therapy, call it diversion, call it meditation, it’s what I do: it’s how I move through the world. It’s how I stay present, how I stay humble.

But since the end of last year, ever since the fires began raging here, I haven’t been able to respond that way to the world around me: to access that wonder. In fact, wonder feels frivolous — insensitive, tasteless — when the world around you, the living world, is burning, burning.

Here in South Australia, in the last couple of weeks, we’ve had milder weather, and even some rainfall. As a result, the fires, for now, are largely under control, though when the heat returns — as it will — so, I think, may the fires.

But in the wake of those fires, the land in those areas has burned to nothingness. The trees and the animals have been killed. There is nothing left. There is nothing to wonder at.

What I feel now, instead of wonder, is rage and grief. These fires should not have happened. For thousands of years, before 1788, the people who lived here managed the land, and they managed fire. They co-existed with the natural world. In the last two hundred years, we have lost that ability, and with it we are losing the land.

There are books you can read about this, if you want to know more — books that were written well before this year’s fires, books that studied the past and made warnings about the future. I would recommend, in particular, Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (about which, you can read more here).

There are also things you can do, right now — organisations to which you can donate your money, or your time, or your talent. If you are an Australian, there are choices you can make today, as you go about your daily life, about how you spend any disposable income you might have — for example, where you buy your food, where you go on holiday — so that your money goes towards local communities affected by the fires (for example, #bookthemout and Empty Esky). I hope that, though movements such as these are aimed at helping the people affected by the fires, they will also, as a natural consequence, help the other living beings affected by the fires. By contributing to these areas, you contribute to all the lives within those areas.

I would add: do these things now. Please. But also, do them forever.

Bushfire prevention is a long-term strategy. It’s a lifestyle choice, and it’s a political choice. If we are to change the course of the future in Australia, if we are to change the way we live in our environment, if we are to learn to co-exist in this Australian environment, then we have to change things forever.

Until we manage to do this, I, like many other Australians, will continue to feel rage and grief instead of wonder.

Snatched phrases: the sky

Look at the sky. (It’s amazing. It’s always amazing.)

From ‘Notes on a Nervous Planet’
by Matt Haig

Matt Haig is right. The sky is amazing.

It is always amazing.

It is a story that is forever unfolding …

PS Shout-out to my father, whose birthday it is today! 

Downpour

Other people’s words about … having sad thoughts

Understand, for instance, that having a sad thought, even having a continual succession of sad thoughts, is not the same as being a sad person. You can walk through a storm and feel the wind but you know you are not the wind.

That is how we must be with our minds. We must allow ourselves to feel their gales and downpours, but all the time knowing this is just necessary weather.

From ‘Reasons to Stay Alive’
by Matt Haig

It was Toni Bernhard who first introduced me, in her book How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness, to the idea that moods are like the weather: impermanent, changeable. She writes elsewhere:

In ‘How to be Sick’, I call it Weather Practice. I like to think of emotions and moods as being as changeable and unpredictable as the weather. They blow in; they blow out. Working with this weather metaphor allows me to hold emotions and moods more lightly, knowing that, like the weather pattern of the moment, they’ll be changing soon. One moment, life looks grey and foreboding; the next moment, a bit of brightness — maybe even a rainbow — begins to break through.

Both Bernhard and Haig are covering the same theme here, a theme that is one of the basic tenets of any kind of mindfulness practice. But while I like Bernhard’s clear, practical prose, there is something about Haig’s phrasing (despite his erratic sense of grammar) that particularly speaks to me.


Necessary weather. Those two words, paired together, feel to me immensely comforting, and true. I murmur them to myself on days when my mind and my mood feel clouded and grey like the clouds pictured in today’s post.

Call these words a mantra, if you like. They bear repeating.

First person

Other people’s words about … writing

Back in my room, I put down my bags, undressed, wrapped myself in blankets, put on Christmas music, and watched the snow fall outside my window, a picture-perfect postcard winter scene, wide lawns of white, thin black arms of trees holding up the white sky. I thought of writing. But what would I have said? I’d long since stopped writing, real writing, my own writing. No words ever came anymore. I’d lost the sense of first-person, the sense of being in the world that writing requires. I guess I had nothing to say for myself. I turned my face into the pillow and slept.

from ‘Wasted’
by Marya Hornbacher

It is a strange thing, but the words above — which form part of Hornbacher’s memoir about anorexia — speak to me as much about writing as they do about starving.

(Let me pause here to say, in passing, that Hornbacher writes about anorexia better than anyone else I have ever read. She writes with a vividness and intensity that is rare and moving and unforgettable. At the time she is describing in the passage above, she was at her lowest weight, close to death. She could not work, or eat, or read, or sleep. Of course she could not write.)

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I don’t know if you could call what Hornbacher is describing here ‘writer’s block’, although certainly she is describing an inability to write. I don’t even know if writer’s block exists. I do know that, like many writers, I have experienced times when I have been unable to write anything I deemed meaningful or worthwhile. For me, like Hornbacher, that feeling is powerfully tied up with a sense of despair, of loss. The despair comes first, and then the inability to write — not the other way around.

We like to tell ourselves that there is a link between depression and genius, between suffering and artistic ability. (Mozart, anyone? Van Gogh? Plath?) But most writers who have been through a period of depression will tell you that they write despite their depression, not because of it; and that they write their best material after a period of depression, not during it. Even those writers who choose to write specifically about their depression — like William Styron in ‘Darkness Visible‘, and Andrew Solomon in his particularly fine book ‘The Noonday Demon‘ — do so after the fact.

Is despair a different thing from depression? In the clinical sense, I guess, it is. Whatever its cause or pathology, it can certainly affect a writer’s ability to write. It can certainly keep her quiet. I’d lost the sense of first-person, Hornbacher says, of her own encounter with illness and despair: the sense of being in the world that writing requires. And that is how it feels.

The corollary of this, for me at least, is that when I write — when I can, when I do — it comes from a good place. Because here’s the thing: to have a sense of being in the world is to have a sense of belonging, of groundedness, of being alive. It is to have a sense of joy.

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I will leave it to Matt Haig, another writer who has chosen depression as the theme of one of his books, to close this post:

I want life. I want to read it and write it and feel it and live it. I want, for as much of the time as possible in this blink-of-an-eye existence we have, to feel all that can be felt.

from ‘Reasons to Stay Alive
by Matt Haig

Those are words that can keep you alive, if you let them, though they will not keep you quiet. I want. I want. I want.

Quietness, anyway, in my opinion, is overrated.