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! 

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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?

Tangled

Other people’s words about … writing a journal

She put the card carefully on her knee under the journal, which she opened at the middle to a sprawl of furious and barely legible writing. There were circles and boxes and in some places the pen had been pressed so hard against the paper that it had torn. Clare snapped the journal shut and for the second time in as many days she put her head in her hands and cried.

There wasn’t, she thought, a single page in all the [boxes of journals] that was worth keeping. For twenty-seven years she had written the same things over and over.

from ‘Closing Down’
by Sally Abbott

Like the character Clare in the passage above, I was an avid journal writer for many years — from the age of about twelve years old, in fact. I began writing a journal because my Year 7 English teacher made the activity a part of our curriculum for the year: she gave us ten minutes at the beginning of each class to write in our journals. She saw journal writing as a way of encouraging us to learn to write fluently, spell correctly, express ourselves clearly and perhaps — as a corollary of the writing — to read widely.

Like Clare, I still have all my old journals, stored away in a plastic crate in the house at Aldinga. Those old childhood ones are filled with pages of neat handwriting in blue fountain-pen ink, drawings, doodles, comic strips I cut out from the newspaper and pasted in, pictures from old magazines, stickers, and notes other people wrote to me (on the odd occasion when I allowed someone access to my journal). They are bright and colourful and their tone is, mostly, chatty and cheerful.

But the later journals, which were written during my move from childhood to adolescence through to early adulthood and beyond, are filled with more handwriting and less colour. The writing takes over. It fills the pages. There is page after page after page of it.

It was a grief counsellor who had recommended Clare start keeping a journal … It was a way of beginning to articulate her feelings, the woman had explained, and Clare remembered her sad, earnest face and the huge weight she gave to the word ‘feelings’, as if they were something Clare could take out of herself and put on a table and carefully untangle and separate and tidy up. And perhaps, for a little while, it had helped. But what had she been thinking … to write over and over and over that she was sad or angry or okay? I only wrote what I felt, she thought. I never wrote what I saw. I never wrote what I did. I never wrote that I’ve made it this far.

In my early adulthood, like Clare, I was encouraged by various health professionals to continue keeping a journal as a part of my therapy; indeed, I was told I could see journal writing as a kind of therapy in itself.

And it was, I guess. For many years, it was.

Or at least I thought it was. I only wrote what I felt, Abbott’s character Clare realises in the passage above (my emphasis): I never wrote what I saw. These are wise words. There came a time, in my own journal writing, when I looked back over all those handwritten pages and was dismayed to see that what I had thought of as a process of therapy and healing was more like a process of emotional purging, repeated over and over and over again.

Reading (or rather, trying to read) those passages felt oppressive, overwhelming. Why did I always have the same feelings? Why did I always write about those feelings? Why didn’t writing change the feelings? Why couldn’t I find a cure?

I’ve talked before about my scepticism when it comes to dubious concepts like recovery and healing and cure. That’s part of my theme today (again), but what interests me more here is the way Abbott, using the character Clare, focuses on another dubious concept: the huge weight we place these days on our feelings, and therefore on our need to untangle them and tidy them up.

Meditators often talk about the practice of watching their thoughts and feelings arise and then letting them pass by without becoming ‘attached’ to them. Though, intellectually, I’ve understood the reasoning behind this for years, it wasn’t until I saw it expressed through Clare’s character that I actually got it.

Feelings are repetitive, yes: I hadn’t been wrong about that, in re-reading my journals. What I had been wrong about was letting this bother me. And measuring myself by it.

I never wrote that I’ve made it this far. Here, Clare realises that feelings, as measuring-tools of ourselves and of our worth, will always fail. They do not mark where we are in our lives. They do not necessarily affect what we see, what we do, where we go. (Or they don’t have to, anyway.) In this sense they are, ultimately, irrelevant. Our feelings accompany us on our passage through life, but they don’t determine the actual passage itself.

And they don’t have to be cured.

Interestingly, given the recurrent out & about theme of some of my posts on this blog, the character Clare in Abbott’s book is a great walker. She walks at night when she can’t sleep: she walks, and walks, and walks. And, in contrast to when she’s writing her journal, when she walks, she sees. When she sees, she learns. Her feelings, as she walks, are a backdrop. They are not the main event.

As for me? I took the pictures in today’s post on one of my recent walks through the Scrub, a day in late October when the Scrub was filled with flowers that were purple and blue and pink and white. I was feeling fairly gloomy at the time of that walk — unwell; stressed about being unwell; stressed about my jobs; stressed about feeling stressed about all of these things — but the pictures don’t convey that stress.

And that is as it should be. The feelings were a backdrop to the walk. What I saw was real and lasting. That’s what matters.

A beautiful thing

Other people’s words about … appetite

To say that I ‘lost’ my appetite during those years would be a joke. On the contrary, I ate, slept, and breathed appetite. I thought about food constantly, pored over food magazines and restaurant reviews like a teenage boy with a pile of porn, copied down recipes on index cards: breads, cakes, chocolate desserts, pies with the richest fillings, things I longed for and wouldn’t let myself have. In truth, I had appetites the size of Mack trucks — driving and insistent longings for food and connection and bodily pleasure — but I found their very power too daunting and fearsome to contend with, and so I split the world into the most rigid place of black and white, yes and no.

from ‘Appetites
by Caroline Knapp

Appetite is a strange, fickle creature. I remember feeling, years ago, when I first read Caroline Knapp’s words in the passage I’ve quoted today, an overwhelming sense of recognition and kinship. I have always had a strong, keen appetite, and back then, when I read Knapp’s book, I felt ashamed of this fact; I fought my driving and insistent longings for food and connection and bodily pleasure.

I don’t feel that way now; my life is on a different keel. In fact, the periodic bouts of nausea I experience lead me to feel the very opposite. During these bouts of sickness, I would give anything — anything at all — to feel hungry.

Part of what I miss when my appetite is gone is the sense of anticipation that I, like all of us, experience with regards to food: the sense of looking forward to something I know will be pleasurable — whether we’re talking solitary pleasures here (sitting on the porch in the sunshine with a plate of cake on my knee and a pot of tea at my feet) or shared pleasures (a meal with family or friends). Anticipation, I realise now, is a pleasure in and of itself. Strip away anticipation and you strip away, with it, a great source of pleasure from your life.

Still, what I have learned is that there are other pleasures to anticipate, apart from food; other things to look forward to; other things, in a way, to hunger for, and then — finally — to savour. These days, the moment I start to feel a little better after a bout of sickness, the moment the nausea begins to fade, I make a big effort to stop languishing inside my house. I take a deep breath and then start seeking out, immediately, the things I know will bring me pleasure.

A while back, I quoted some words from Sarah Wilson about managing anxiety by (to paraphrase) simply doing it, leaving it, and moving on. Wilson’s words, I see, apply here, too. Anxiety, after all, is only one source of anguish: sickness is another. By not dwelling on our anguish, by actively making ourselves move on from it, we allow a sense of anticipation and pleasure to return to our lives.

We allow our appetite for life to flourish once again.

If I could go back in time and give my younger self advice now, I would counsel her to cherish her appetite rather than to be daunted by it (Knapp’s word). I would tell her that hunger and appetite are vital to life. I would tell her that hunger, like appetite, is a beautiful thing. And I would tell her to look up, out and around at the world. To savour the things she sees and experiences. To savour all the pleasures life has to offer.

I took the photos you see in today’s post on a recent bike ride around the Aldinga Beach/Port Willunga area. I had not been feeling particularly well in the days prior to this; I had slept poorly as a result; and I cycled slowly on that ride, feeling tired and not terribly fit.

Still, it was good to be out there. I had looked forward to that ride, and I enjoyed it. It felt good to be alive.

Why I drink tea, not coffee

Other people’s words about … tea

The MOTH (the Man of the House) thinks the world’s drowning in a tsunami of expensive [cappuccino] froth. He’s fighting the trend single-handedly. He drinks tea made from tea leaves. He doesn’t like ‘gift’ teas that arrive with house guests and distant cousins …

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Every morning and most evenings, the MOTH makes tea following the rules set down by his mother. Bring a kettle of water to a ‘rolling’ boil. Warm the teapot. Put in a generous measure of loose tea. Fill the pot with boiling water, replace the lid and wait patiently. In the meantime, put out china cups and saucers, teaspoons, the sugar bowl and a jug of milk. Hot buttered toast and a jar of homemade marmalade will do nicely as well.

From ‘Tea and Sympathy’ by Pat McDermott
featured in
The Australian Women’s Weekly, July 2016

Old-time readers of this blog will know of my love for tea by now. I would rather give up wine, chocolate or cheese than give up my daily pot(s) of tea.

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Many years ago, I attempted to become a coffee drinker. I was working as a student barista in a cafe in Port Adelaide at the time, and the coffees I made for my customers smelt enticing. There is nothing better than the smell of freshly brewed coffee.

But. I soon discovered that I am extremely sensitive to caffeine. Give me a cappuccino at nine o’clock in the morning, and I will be jittery and fidgety and twitchy all day. I won’t sleep. I’ll still be awake the next morning, heart hammering away, eyes dry and wide. And don’t even get me started on that sense of the walls of the room caving in on me …

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For years, I avoided drinking tea because I knew it also had caffeine in it, though in a smaller dose. It wasn’t until I met my partner, an inveterate tea-drinker, that I was tempted. Eventually, tea wooed me in just the way that coffee had once done. (Okay, maybe he did some wooing, too.)

Maybe it’s the smaller amount of caffeine. Maybe it’s psychological. Maybe it’s the ritual of tea-making: my grandmother’s Royal Worcester china, the pot, the brewing, the accompaniment of sourdough toast spread with a (thick!) layer of my mother’s grapefruit marmalade or my father’s quince jam. Whatever it is, I have found that I can handle the caffeine in tea.

I read recently in The Australian Healthy Food Guide (p. 14) that Lord Twining, of Twinings Tea fame, has been known to state that anything less than nine cups of tea per day is a totally unsatisfying tea-drinking day. Clearly, Lord Twining may have vested interests in making statements like this … but I can’t help admiring such a line of thinking, all the same.

And so … let the tea-drinking continue!

Inner world

Other people’s words about … resilience

I think maybe [my father] liked the worlds in his head better than the real one. As far as I ever knew, he didn’t have any close friends … Once, when I was about nine or ten, I told him I wasn’t very popular at school. He told me that friends were overrated, because the only person you could ever really count on was yourself. Weirdly, that actually made me feel better.

from ‘Thanks for the Trouble
by Tommy Wallach

I am, I suppose, what most people would describe as introverted. There are other words that go along with this kind of description: shy, quiet, aloof, disengaged, uncertain, insecure, antisocial. Those are mostly negative words, I see. Perhaps they are coined by extroverts.

The year that we lived in England, I was at my most introverted: I had no friends at all. (Here’s a question: do you end up without friends because you are introverted, or do you become introverted because you have no friends?) I was fourteen, and I wandered those long school corridors with the white polished floors alone. I wore the wrong clothes, and I had the wrong accent, and I lived life at the wrong pace and the wrong volume. At lunch I sat in one of the stalls in the girls’ toilets, waiting the hour out. I listened to girls coming in and out, the cubicle doors swinging, the toilets flushing. My breath caught on the sweet spray of perfume they doused themselves with as they stood before the mirrors. I listened to their chatter, high and loud and lipsticked. And then I listened to the door to the girls’ room banging shut again, their footsteps receding down the white-floored corridors as they went back to wherever they had come from.

After the first few weeks, one of the school teachers took pity on me, and introduced me to a couple of girls in my class.

‘Go and sit with them at lunchtime,’ he said, with a look on his face that was half-pity and half-exasperation. He was small and balding and chipper. ‘They’re nice girls. They’ll look after you.’

Such well-meaning, misguided intentions! I looked at the two girls and they looked back at me. I could see they were as horrified at the prospect of me spending lunchtime with them as I was. And yet we all did what he said. They took me back to their lunchtime bench, and I sat with them and their friends — that day and the day after and the day after that. For months, in fact, I ate my sandwich with them silently; I sat with them silently; I watched them silently; I listened to them silently. They took to ignoring me, in the end. They went on with their lives — their parties and their gossip and their drinking and their shopping and their boyfriends — while I sat mute beside them, in what seems to me now almost a parody of introversion.

I have often thought back to that year in high school. I’ve thought about how, at night, I lay in the darkness of my bedroom, the one with the wallpaper with pretty sprigs of flowers dotted over it, and longed for popularity and friendship, for someone my own age to count on. I’ve thought about how I believed that I must be faulty in some way — weak, or cowardly, or defective — because I couldn’t do what other people my own age did instinctively: talk. Make connections. Relax. Laugh.

So it astonishes me now, to look back and see a different possibility, a different narrative, from the one I’ve just told. I don’t believe that friends are ‘overrated’, to use Wallach’s word. Still, I wonder: what if I had learned to trust myself during that year? What if I had learned that I was my own friend? What if I had allowed myself to like the world in my head at least as much as the real one? More broadly, what if we could teach all young people to count on themselves in this way? What, then?

I am not sure. But I think it’s important to listen to alternative narratives like the one in the words above: to retell our life-stories to ourselves, to seek out new plots, new endings. I think it’s important to trust your own inner world: to learn to turn to it in times of need, or in times of loneliness. Introversion, in this context, is irrelevant. What’s relevant is resilience. Resilience is all that matters.

Resilience, you will note, is not a negative word.

It’s not always about speed. Or winning.

Other people’s words about … running (slowly)

 

I didn’t fight my way across the finishing line — nor did I float. The significance of that marathon didn’t lie in speed or in pain, but in the exchange between my body and the city. I didn’t need a personal best trophy; I could prize the run on its own terms. After many years of early morning runs and all kinds of races, running is to me a way of being, not a way of testing myself against invisible antagonists and not a competition with my peers. I had nothing to vanquish but my doubts, and now — in ways I could never have predicted — running has brought me into a rich communion with the world. It still surprises me. I’m careful not to slip on dirt tracks, and I pay more attention to warnings about overstraining my knees than I used to. I want to avoid injury. I don’t want a show-stopping finish line moment. I want to keep running.

From ‘The Long Run
by Catriona Menzies-Pike

When I (briefly, as it turned out, at least for now) took up running again last year, it wasn’t the thought of speed, or competition, or races, or personal bests, that appealed to me. Nor, God forbid, was it the thought of getting super-fit and toned. Lone beast that I am, it wasn’t the thought of companionship, either: of joining a running team, or running with new friends. I know these are the things that runners often find joy in, but they weren’t drawcards for me.

No, what drew me back to running was what I remembered from the period in my twenties when I ran: how meditative running can make you feel. There is the beat of your heart, the rhythm of your feet, the taking-in and letting-out of your breath. There is the simplicity of moving your feet over the ground, taking you there (wherever ‘there’ is) and back again. There is the joy, afterwards, of feeling reawakened. And alive.

I'm careful not to slip on dirt tracks
I’m careful not to slip on dirt tracks

I suspect that Catriona Menzies-Pike is a kindred spirit. Her whole book, if you care to read it, is an eloquent essay on how running helped to heal the grief she felt for her parents’ untimely death when she was still a child. It is also an exploration of the joys of running slowly — and making the choice to do so. Imagine running, but not forcing yourself to race. Imagine running, but allowing yourself to enjoy the moment rather than the end-result. Imagine running, with no particular aim in mind other than to take the time it takes.

Imagine.

A rich communion with the world
A rich communion with the world

We talk big about fitness these days. We talk about heart-rate and VO2 and pace and gait. We talk about sub-four-hour marathons and heel-striking and foam rollers. We have instruments and apps to help us talk this talk — Garmins and GPS trackers and Apple Watches and the like. (Wait, maybe those instruments created the talk. Have you ever thought that?) So choosing to run slowly, in a world full of talk like this, is tantamount to an act of anti-consumerist, anti-conformist rebellion.

I don’t want a show-stopping finish line moment. Those words apply equally well to life as they do to running, don’t they? There’s another metaphor in the quote above, too. Running, Menzies-Pike says, still surprises me. I get that. I do.

Because life still surprises me. I hope it always will.