Savour it

Other people’s words about … moments of beauty

Her head nested in spindly weeds [as she lay down in the grass]; the sky glowed preternaturally blue through the slats. As her breathing slowed, she noted a bee crawling along a blade of grass above her head. She counted its stripes, amazed to see them juxtaposed with the stripes of sky. The bee’s were a warning, the sky’s a promise she could not yet fathom, and for a moment everything seemed connected, aching beauty and imminent danger, the fragility of the bee and the scalded roof of her mouth, the transcendent savour of [the stolen loaf of freshly baked] bread and the fact that she was literally lying in a ditch.

From ‘Tess of the Road’
by Rachel Hartman

I love this passage, in which the protagonist of Rachel Hartman’s novel, Tess, feels utterly present in a single moment of her life: feels herself watching the moment as it unfolds. Tess’s experience of this moment, her sense of being present in it, is what a meditation teacher might call an experience of mindfulness. And yet the description is beautiful rather than didactic, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Stripes in the sky (1)

Hartman’s words are, I think, a description of the practice of mindfulness at its best. Mindfulness, to me, is not about mantras or breathing or (heaven forbid!) colouring-in books. Instead, and far more simply, it is about slowing down, about looking around, about noticing the world around you. It is, most of all, about seeing.

Because the practice of mindfulness — this kind of mindfulness, anyway, which to me is the only kind that makes any practical or spiritual sense at all — is about stepping outside, into the living, breathing world, the one that exists beyond walls and ceilings and computers and cars. It’s about looking and seeing. And about being grateful for what you see.

Stripes in the sky (2)

This year has been a strange, uneasy year for me: a year of trying to make a living from freelancing, and then trying to readjust to a salaried living, working regular hours, meeting KPIs and targets. I’m grateful for everything I’ve learned throughout the year, and grateful most of all that I was able to seek out other opportunities when freelancing alone wasn’t enough to sustain me.

Still, at times this year, when things got hard, I felt myself becoming frighteningly disconnected from the things that usually matter most to me: those still, small moments like the one Hartman describes, those moments when you stop and breathe the world in, exactly as it. Call it fear that stole those moments away from me; call it loss; call it depression; call it change. Whatever it was, it shocked me. I felt that I had stepped away from the world, and I didn’t know how to step back in.

And yet here I am now, months down the track, and I’m still here, still breathing. I’m stepping back in.

Observation

Other people’s words about … sadness

Why was she so sad? The unspoken question had dangled over the [therapist’s] beige couch and the framed degrees and the economy of Kleenex. He commanded a cache of Ohs and I sees in varying grades of volume and texture, knew when to prod and when to sink with her. Why was she so sad?

Ada was sad because she was sad because she was sad. She experienced extreme difficulty in reaching past the tautological.

From ‘Infinite Home
by Kathleen Alcott

Some time ago, for much the same reason as Ada in the passage above, I quit therapy. I had come to my therapist feeling sad; but years of therapy later, I still felt sad. It seemed to me at last that, whether my sadness was unique or universal or — like Ada’s — purely tautological, the time for exploring it was over.

In the years that have passed since then, I’ve learned that I feel better when I try to make peace with sadness than I do when I try to overcome it. There is much to be said for acceptance and for patience. And for seeing things through.

I took the pictures in today’s post on a day when I had just heard that I will be losing my job at the end of this year. I felt, that day, as though I had been cheated of something — of an income, yes, but also of something less tangible, some essential part of me that I couldn’t actually name. I felt anxious and old and vulnerable and as though I had failed. Most of all, I just felt sad.

What I saw

I couldn’t sit still with my sadness that day; I couldn’t see it through. So I did the only thing that seemed manageable to me in the moment: I took myself off for a run by the beach. I ran what seemed to me a long way, the furthest I’d ever run, in fact — although the distance didn’t matter, really. What mattered was that I was outside: moving, breathing deeply, looking around. Seeing. Sadness, I’ve found, stops me from seeing. But stepping outside returns my vision to me, at least for a while.

Losing a job — especially a job that you love, especially when you are nearing fifty — entails a specific kind of sadness, one that is wrapped up in grief and fear. Still, I’m curious. What do you do when you are sad?

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.

This moment, now

Other people’s words about … the everyday

The sunlit room is silent and there rises a kind of aural transparency through which a deeper background of sound emerges, intricately embroidered like an ocean bed seen through clear water: the sound of passing cars outside, of dogs barking and the distant keening of gulls, of fragments of conversation from the pavements below and music playing somewhere, of phones ringing, pots and pans clattering in a faraway restaurant kitchen, babies crying, workmen faintly hammering, of footsteps, of people breathing, and beneath it all a kind of pulse, the very heartbeat and hydraulics of the day.

From ‘Aftermath’
by Rachel Cusk

I’ve been saving this quote for a while. My copy of Aftermath came from the library, and so I can’t look the quote up again and remind myself of the context; but from memory, Cusk, who was at the time living and working in the British seaside town of Brighton, is in this passage writing of a visit to the dentist.

It’s easy to focus our attention on the beautiful things we see and hear around us. (I do it in my posts on this blog all the time.) But I love the way that Cusk does the opposite here: she takes an everyday moment — not a remarkable one, not even a particularly pleasant one — and describes it so vividly that the moment shines; it sings.

Sometimes, as I go about my own day — at moments when I am particularly busy, or grumpy, or stressed, or anxious — I make myself stop. I glance around; I tilt my head to one side to listen; I sniff the air. I make myself take everything in, just for that moment. It’s a way of stepping back, I suppose: of absorbing rather than participating. However unremarkable my surrounds at that moment, the act of stepping back from them and observing them creates a stillness inside of me.

That stillness is useful. It reminds me that I’m alive.

Look up from your work
every now and then.
Take a step back.

I suppose you could call this a form of anxiety management. I suppose you could say that I am teaching myself to be present, or trying to practise mindfulness. But I’m not consciously striving to do any of these things: the act feels more instinctive than that. It feels, simply, as though it is an important — no, an essential — thing to do, every now and then.

And that’s what Cusk does in this passage, I think: she grabs a very ordinary moment, she witnesses it and she breathes life (a heartbeat, a kind of pulse) into it.

And somehow, along the way, with the words she uses, she breathes magic into her day.

When the wall comes down

Other people’s words about … the view

When I was about fourteen or so, I studied a poem in school by David Campbell, called ‘On the Birth of a Son‘. It was a sonnet, and I didn’t know much about sonnets, except that Shakespeare wrote a lot of them. It never occurred to me that a contemporary poet might write one.

This sonnet by David Campbell has stayed in my mind ever since. It remains one of my favourite poems. Here it is, in its entirety:

The day the boy was born, the wall fell down
That flanks our garden. There’s an espaliered pear,
And then the wall I laboured with such care,
Such sweat and foresight, locking stone with stone,
To build. Well, it’s just a wall, but it’s my own,
I built it. Sitting in a garden chair
With flowers against the wall, it’s good to stare
Inwards. But now some freak of wind has blown
and tumbled it across the lawn — a sign
Perhaps. Indeed, when first I saw the boy,
I thought, he’s humble now, but wait a few
Years and we’ll see! — out following a line
Not of our choice at all. And then with joy
I looked beyond the stones and saw the view.

On the face of it, this poem is about becoming a parent — the fears new parents have; the limitations parenthood imposes on their lives; the unexpected, unsettling joys it rewards them with. So it might seem strange that Campbell’s words have always resonated with me, though I have chosen, deliberately, never to become a parent.

But that’s the thing about great poems: they are universal. They manage to strike a chord in different people at different times for different reasons.

For myself, every time I read this poem I am moved by the contrast the poet makes between the act of looking inward — at his safe, pretty, cosy life — and the act of looking up, out, to glimpse a view of the world, and his life, beyond.

The view beyond. Recently, I went on a camping trip to Yorke Peninsula with my partner. We returned to the same spot we always return to, driving down a long, undulating, unpaved road to get there — one that is corrugated and dotted with puddle-holes, dusty with sand stirred up by other passing vehicles, and lined with dense thickets of bush where brown snakes lie coiled, sleeping.

Each day we passed our time the way we always pass our time there. Each day we woke to the same view.

But it is a spectacular view: of open skies, of wide seas, of sprawling cliffs and rolling sand dunes. It is a view of a life beyond the life we normally lead. It is a view that sets me free.

I live a small life: small things give me pleasure. I consider myself, mostly, lucky to be able to live this way. And yet it’s good to escape from time to time: to look up and out and beyond.

And to see, again, the beautiful view.

Notes

  1. You can find a link to this poem here and here.
  2. All the photos in this post were taken at our campsite in Yorke Peninsula in February this year.

Anticipation

Sometimes, when we fear something,
the fear we anticipate experiencing is what makes us most anxious —
rather than the thing itself that we fear.
Psychologists call this ‘anticipatory anxiety’,
which, as technical terms go, is all very well.

But here’s how a man who lived more than a century ago put it:

Some of your hurts you have cured.
The sharpest still you have survived.
But what torments of grief you endured
From evils which never arrived.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-82

I’ve taken to murmuring these words to myself when I feel afraid.
People can speak in psychobabble and jargon —
or they can use timeless words.
Which do you find more healing?

It’s time

The only constant in life is change …

This month, I’m participating in Mindful in May, a one-month meditation challenge to raise money to provide clean water to people in developing nations.
I know.
I know!
I don’t meditate!
But life changes.
Partly, I like the idea of helping other people whilst also helping myself.
And partly, I’m ready for change.

Lest this all sounds terribly earnest and self-involved,
let me finish by alerting you to ‘Anxiety Girl’, the comic by Natalie Dee.
No matter how anxious you’re feeling,
Anxiety Girl will make you smile.

Note:
I’d like to thank my friend Allayne for first alerting me to ‘Anxiety Girl’. She thought it might be relevant to me … and she was right.
Oh, and if you would like to support my efforts, leave a comment here and I’ll send you the link to my fundraising page.