Snatched words: beginning

‘It is terrible to desire the end of something,
the absence of something;
desire should belong to life, to presence and not absence.’

From ‘Aftermath’
by Rachel Cusk

We’re supposed to think about the pot of gold when we look at rainbows, right? But when I stepped outdoors after waking the other morning, the sun had just risen and a storm was about to hit, and in that moment between — in that moment as I stood there — the light in the sky grew lurid, and a rainbow appeared.

It is terrible, as Cusk says, to desire the end of something, the absence of something. The rainbow seemed to me, in that moment before fat raindrops began to fall, a symbol of the opposite of that kind of desire. It seemed to me to be the start of everything: of the rain, yes, of course. Of my day. Of the rest of my life.

Beginning.

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.

What, then, is this?

Other people’s words about … therapy

Sometimes I wonder why I come here [to see my psychoanalyst] when the coming is so iterative, so forced. Having to come here sometimes feels like the biggest problem I have. I feel like a lonely man visiting a brothel, the money changing hands, paying for understanding as some people pay for love. And just as that is not love, so this cannot be understanding. What, then, is it?

from ‘Aftermath
by Rachel Cusk

As I’ve mentioned here before, I spent several years in and out of therapy, being treated for anorexia and its aftermath. I will be forever grateful to the therapists I saw during those years. They treated me with respect, patience, warmth and compassion. And they listened. Oh, they listened.

But I stayed in therapy too long, I think. I believed at the time that I was seeking a cure for my constant sense of malaise. That cure seemed terribly elusive. Now I think it was elusive because, subconsciously, I knew there wasn’t one. What I was really reaching out for was understanding, and that is not something I found in therapy sessions.

Therapy is a strange process. It is, as Rachel Cusk says in the passage above, a transaction of sorts. When that transaction starts to make you feel worse rather than better, when you feel lonelier leaving the therapist’s office than you did on arriving, it’s time to stop. It really is as simple as that, though it took me some time to figure this out.

Post-therapy, am I still seeking understanding? Yes, of course — just like everyone else. Have I found it? Not really. Perhaps no-one ever does. What I have found, though, is solace. I find solace in pots of tea, and walks along the beach, and wanders in the Scrub. I find it in cakes I bake, and books I’m reading, and camping trips I plan to go on. I find it in birdsong, and in leisurely bike rides, and in the company of my partner and my dog.

And I find solace in other people’s stories.

Tell me, then, where do you find solace?

Acknowledgments

Other people’s words about … gratitude

Andrew Wylie and Sarah Chalfant continued to treat me as a writer until eventually I became one again.

from the ‘Acknowledgments’ section
in ‘Aftermath
by Rachel Cusk

There is a ritual I always follow when I first pick up a new book to read. Before I begin to read it, I flick to the end to see how many pages it is. I like to know the length of the book I’m about to read, so that as I’m reading it, I know exactly how far I am through. It’s a way of measuring the pace of the story, perhaps: a way, too, of pacing myself and measuring my mood as I read. Sometimes, also, I admit, it’s a way of determining whether I’ll keep reading the book to its end. (If I’m bored and I’m not even a third of the way through, I stop. Life is so short and the library has so many books, it’s not worth spending time struggling through one I’m not enjoying!)

Once I’ve done that, I like to read the ‘About the Author’ section. I look at the author photo and check out their biography. Are they an academic? Is this their first book? How old are they? What do they like to reveal about themselves? Do they stick solely to their writing history, or do they mention their family, their loved ones, their hobbies? Do they write full-time, or do they have another job that pays for the privilege of writing? Maybe reading about the author is a way of trying to find some kind of connection. Reading is better, in my experience, when you feel connected in some ways — to the characters, certainly, but also, at least for me, to the author.

Next, I look at the list of the author’s previous publications, near the front of the book. I look at the copyright page, to see the date of publication. And then, finally, I read the acknowledgments. I love to see who the author thanks in their acknowledgments, and in what order, and whether their acknowledgments are formal or perfunctory (or both), or informal and long-winded and meandering. Sometimes there is a hint of how the author felt as they wrote the book — whether the writing of it was a joyful process or whether they were filled with troubles and doubt as they wrote.

There is an art to writing good acknowledgments, I think. If the author says too much — gushing about how wonderful the writing process was, or moaning about how difficult it became — they embarrass themselves. If the author says too little, the words are meaningless. Sometimes — unfairly, no doubt — I am so swayed by my reaction to the acknowledgments that I have already decided whether I love or hate the book before I’ve even read the book itself.

Rachel Cusk’s acknowledgments for Aftermath are of average length; the writing of them is neither perfunctory nor over the top. There is no hint of whining in them, and yet the sentence I’ve quoted above hints — subtly, I think, and poignantly — at serious writerly doubt. Once I’d read that sentence, I was determined to read the book all the way through, no matter how difficult I found it. Cusk, in those few words, had won me over.

They continued to treat me as a writer until eventually I became one again. That might be one of the most grateful sentences I’ve ever read from a writer. Gratitude, graciousness, humility — these are qualities I admire in others and aspire to myself. A writer who can write a sentence like that is, simply, the kind of writer whose books I want to read.

Note:
Some readers may remember that I published an earlier version of this post by mistake, before I had finished writing it — a version I subsequently (and very hastily) deleted when I realised my mistake! This is the finished version, finally …

When summer came

Other people’s words about … summer

Summer came, clanging days of glaring sunshine in the seaside town where I live, the gulls screaming in the early dawn, a glittering agitation everywhere, the water a vista of smashed light.

From ‘Aftermath
by Rachel Cusk

I live in a seaside suburb like Rachel Cusk. Gulls scream outside my window most mornings, flapping over the roof, perching on the top of the stobie poles. I find great solace in their shrieks. Like the call of a wattlebird, there is nothing elegant or beautiful in a gull’s cry. It is gloriously unapologetic, and harsh, and guttural, and wild.

There is a particular kind of summer day at the beach: the sand is so hot along the path from the road across the dunes that if you are making your way barefoot — or if you are a dog — you have to run over it towards the shore to prevent the soles of your feet (or paws!) from burning. The sky throbs; the air is windless, hot, salt-scented; and gulls stand in the shallows, waggling their legs as they stare down into the clear water, searching (I think) for fish. It’s so quiet in the hot stillness that you can hear the little lapping, bubbling noises the water makes as the gulls’ legs move about in it.

A vista of smashed light.
A vista of smashed light

I haven’t swum in the sea much this summer. Due to the storms in December and early January, the water is muddied and polluted. But I love the beach at this time of the year, regardless. I feel no glittering agitation, as Cusk does: only joy.

It’s the heat. And the light. And the gull-shriek-rent air.