Outside

Other people’s words about … the beach

Outside the air is thinner and the sky is bruised with angry storm clouds. She inches her way down the verge, relieved to escape [from the hall], and her breathing eases. She scans the beach: to her right is a shoulder of cliff that juts out into the sea, and to the left is a long worm of bleached sand, with a huddle of stick men on it. Two of the men break away from the pack and walk along the empty beach towards her, while the others clamber over the dunes to a dozen cars parked haphazardly on the roadside. Applause wafts out of the hall and needles of warm rain pick down. She looks harder at the breakaway pair, their heads bowed in conversation …

The wind sighs and seawater sprays [her face].

From ‘The Unforgotten’
by Laura Powell

I read the passage I’ve quoted above just 24 hours before the Premier of South Australia announced a statewide lockdown for the next six days, aimed at preventing a rise in the small, but rapidly increasing and highly infectious, number of cases of COVID-19 that have been detected in South Australia in the last week. At the time I was reading that passage, most South Australians were expecting some kind of restrictions to be imposed soon, but I think we were all taken by surprise by the particular conditions of our lockdown when it was announced, and by the speed with which those conditions were imposed. The very next day — today — we were in lockdown.

Clifftop view, ten days before restrictions were imposed.

Six days is not a long time in the scheme of things, and I understand and respect the reasoning behind our lockdown. Still, the restrictions here for those six days are more severe than any restrictions imposed at any other time this year in any other state in Australia. One person in each household is allowed to leave the house (preferably masked) once a day, to get essential medical items and groceries. Essential workers are also allowed to leave the house (preferably masked) to go to work. No businesses, other than essential businesses (supermarkets, grocery stores, post offices, banks, and — though what this says about our culture, I dread to think — bottle shops) are allowed to operate. Other than that, South Australians are instructed not to leave the house at all, even to exercise. Even to walk their dog.

Bush view, the week before restrictions were imposed.

The restrictions were announced at midday yesterday, and they came into effect at midnight the same day. I finished work at five o’clock, and all I could think to do, once I got home from the office, was to walk down the road for one last wander along the beach before the sun sank. Before midnight came.

I wondered if the beach would be filled with last-minute crowds: I had heard that the shops were. But when I reached the beach, there were no more people than usual. It was a warm, still, muggy afternoon. A woman swam past me, doing breaststroke, heading northwards towards the breakwater, her stroke slow but steady and strong. A couple in their thirties walked by, and I heard the man say to the woman, very articulately, ‘I’m sorry. I’m not always able to articulate myself when I’m … ‘ But then, as they walked on, his voice faded, so that I was left wondering what kind of argument they’d just had, and whether it was lockdown-related or not. A grey-haired man jogged near the shore, with his old, stiff-hipped dog trotting a couple of metres behind him, off-leash. They were in perfect accord, this man and his dog: each time the man turned his head to check on his dog, his dog looked up at him and then trotted on steadily towards him.

There was nothing special or eventful about the beach that afternoon, except that I knew that it would be my last afternoon there for at least six days. Other than that, it was just an ordinary afternoon, the kind of ordinary afternoon on the beach that Laura Powell describes in the passage I’ve quoted above. I tried to work out what I was feeling, and then I gave up and just concentrated, instead, on enjoying the moment for whatever it gave me: the warm air, the sultry clouds, the faintly orange horizon, the silvering sea.

Beach view, a few hours before restrictions were imposed.

I don’t know what lies ahead of us — not just for the next six days, but also for the days and weeks after that. Perhaps the restrictions will ease, if the spread of the virus slows down; otherwise, the restrictions are likely to continue. It’s best not to think too far ahead for now, I guess. I am, besides, grateful to live in a country, and a state, where our leaders take our health seriously; and, on a smaller, more personal scale, I’m grateful to live in a place where I know that the beach lies just down the end of the road — even if I can’t go there for the moment.

I’ll be back there soon. We all will be.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Just one link for today, but it’s relevant, I think:

Cage

Other people’s words about … words

Sometimes at the birth and death of a day, the opal sky is no colour we have words for, the gold shading into blue without the intervening green that is halfway between those colours, the fiery warm colours that are not apricot or crimson or gold, the light morphing second by second so that the sky is more shades of blue than you can count as it fades from where the sun is to the far side where other colours are happening. If you look away for a moment you miss a shade for which there will never be a term, and it is transformed into another and another. The names of the colours are sometimes cages containing what doesn’t belong there, and this is often true of language generally, of the words like woman, man, child, adult, safe, strong, free, true, black, white, rich, poor. We need the words, but use them best knowing they are containers forever spilling over and breaking open. Something is always beyond.

From ‘Recollections of My Non-Existence’
by Rebecca Solnit

In the passage I’ve quoted above, Rebecca Solnit gives a beautiful, vivid description of a sunset, a description which then morphs, somehow — in just the same way she describes the colours in the sky morphing — into a discussion about words: how we use them, how they imprison us, and how our understanding of the way that they imprison us might just set us free.

This year, perhaps even more than previous years, we need the words, as Solnit puts it, to ask ourselves questions about what is happening all around us: in the political sphere, the public health sphere, the environmental sphere. And yet, at the same time, all the words we use when we ask ourselves those very questions, when we try to make sense of this year, are nothing more than containers, cages. I can’t think, honestly, of a word that really captures what this year has been like, or what the meaning of this year might be, or how we might learn from this year so that next year isn’t the same (or worse).

I am a person who loves to read and to write, and so it seems natural to me, when I feel wordless, to equate my wordlessness with despair. But sometimes, this year, when I’ve been at my most wordless in the face of everything that is happening in the world, I have been reminded of a line by Emily Dickinson: Hope is the thing with feathers.

Hope, Dickinson writes, sings the tune without the words. Dickinson’s hope is feathered and wordless; it is an uncaged creature, a creature that is free.

I think of Dickinson’s warm, flitting hope as an antidote to everything else I’ve felt in response to this year. When I read her poem, her words set me free.

Lately I’ve been reading …

With thanks to my mother for the second and third items on this list.

Say it loud, say it true

Other people’s words about … writing

Dan sits at his desk [to write his book] and closes the door to the hall, to the world. Winter unfolds around the cottage, June to July, and time flutters to the ground like pages. Too few pages. Never enough.

From ‘The Breeding Season’
by Amanda Niehaus

A few weeks ago, right at the end of my first week in my new job, I spent a weekend with a group of women who are writers and artists, some of whom I’d known for many years, a couple of whom I’d never met before. We walked along the beach, and we talked, and we laughed, and we ate, and we drank gin and tonic. And then we parted ways again, some of us driving back along the winding coastal roads towards the city to a life made entirely of writing and drawing, some of us driving back to a life made partly of writing and partly of child-rearing or paid work outside of the home.

Lunch break view (1): Climbing the mast

The woman who had organised the weekend had planned it, loosely, as a writers’ retreat, and indeed some of the women — a couple of whom had strict deadlines to meet with their publishers — did write during the weekend. The rest of us sat outside around a table on the sun-drenched balcony, sharing stories of our writing: our latest work in progress, recent reviews, launches we’d attended, talks we’d given, and so on.

I say we and us, but the first-person pronoun sits queasily with me, because I haven’t published anything for ten years, and because I’ve been through periods in recent years where I’ve consciously stopped writing altogether and tried to move on to other things in my life. This year, during the early months of my freelance life, I started writing again, but the process has continued to feel tentative, precarious (that word again!), and filled with doubt and fear.

Lunch break view (2): Red and blue

And so I felt a little like an intruder at that sun-splashed table on the balcony overlooking the sea. Sure, I have stories to tell about writing and about the books I’ve written, but they’re stories anchored in the past, not the present. Mostly, then, I stayed silent, without contributing when the talk turned back to writing. I listened to the things my companions were discussing, the things they said they thought about as they wrote. And as I listened, I reflected — as I have so many times over the last year or two — that what stops me from writing these days (or, more accurately, what stops me from completing any of the writing I start these days) isn’t so much a lack of confidence in my writing as it is a lack of confidence in my self: who I am, where I fit in the world. What I experience. What I think. What I stand for. What I believe. What I feel.

What I want to say.

Lunch break view (3): Seagull companion

For me, writing has always been about having a voice. In essence, it’s about having a conversation on the page with my readers. And so, implicitly, it’s about feeling that I have the right to express myself, to speak up, to tell a story: my story. It makes sense, then, that in the last few years, as I’ve found it increasingly hard to talk aloud — in conversation, I mean, to family, to friends, to peers, to colleagues — about the way I experience the world, my world, I have also found it increasingly hard to write.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever write or publish another book again in my life, and I understand that, in the scheme of things, whether I do or not is probably neither here nor there. But I do know that in order to write again, I will have to learn to believe in my voice once more, and to be able to listen to myself somehow, and to manage to see myself not as an intruder but as someone who belongs in this world. Until I can do these things, I will keep letting those pages of mine — the actual pages and the metaphorical ones, the pages of time, the pages of my life — flutter, like Dan’s in the passage I’ve quoted above, to the ground.

Weekend view: under the arch

Sometimes when I write posts like this on my blog, they feel self-indulgent, self-referential, self-absorbed. And perhaps my posts are all of these things. But perhaps, too, there’s a reader out there somewhere, reading this post, who has felt (some of) the things I’m writing about today, and who hears her voice reflected back to her as she reads. I want you to know, reader out there, that you are not alone in this world. Your voice matters. Your short life matters. You matter.

So go on, say what you have to say: and say it loud, say it true. This world, this life, belongs to you, too.

Why do you write?

Other people’s words about … writing and joy

Still, Connell went home that night and read over some notes he had been making for a new story [that he was writing], and he felt the old beat of pleasure inside his body, like watching a perfect goal, like the rustling movement of light through leaves, a phrase of music from the window of a passing car. Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.

From ‘Normal People
by Sally Rooney

I have a friend, whom I very much respect, who has been writing fiction for as long as I’ve known her, without any desire to seek either publication or readership. It seems to me that she writes purely for the pleasure of the process itself, and for what that process brings her; it seems to me that writing, for her, is an entirely internal process of discovery and exploration, requiring no further justification, either to herself or to others.

Light through leaves (1)

Since my own decision to stop writing a while back, I’ve gone on thinking about writing and the role that it plays, or has played, in my life. And I’ve come to find my friend’s concept — whereby writing is a private act, an act for no-one other than herself, with no thought to the future or to the past — consoling and inspiring in equal measures. I like the honesty of her act. I like the wonder in it. I like the courage. Sometimes, it takes courage to do things just because.

Light through leaves (2)

So I hope that my friend experiences, when she writes, those brief, flickering, sun-dappled moments of joy Rooney describes so beautifully in the passage above. I hope she feels the old beat of pleasure inside [her] body.

And I’m sure that she does.

The end of the story

Other people’s words about … writing

April has never really known loneliness until now; she has had all tastes of its dregs, like cold milky coffee curdled at the bottom of the cup, but she has always had faith in the fact that it would pass. Now, she is not so sure. And this loneliness is entangled with her failure as a musician, another certainty in her life that seems to have gone.

Most days, she tries to write.

She sits by the window with her guitar and picks idly at notes, strumming chords underneath, humming to herself as she does so. But nothing ever sticks, and she feels as if she is just pretending, playing alone outside a room she can no longer enter.

from ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog
by Georgia Blain

I did something I had never expected to do this week: I stopped working on the book I’ve been writing, on and off, ever since my last novel was published in 2010. Actually, I stopped writing fiction altogether, at least for now.

The novel I’ve been writing all these years has gone through many, many permutations: I’ve written it as a ghost story for young adults; as a reworked ghost story for middle-grade readers; as a love story for ‘new’ adults’; as a coming-of-age story for women my own age. I’ve written it in the first person and in the third person, and in past tense and in present tense. I’ve written it using pen and paper, and Microsoft Word, and Scrivener.

I’ve written it. And written it. And written it.

All the time I’ve been writing this novel, I’ve been telling myself that the doubt I feel in myself, and in my ability to write a third novel — this third novel, anyway — would pass. But it hasn’t. Sometimes it’s quietened down for a period, but then it’s flared up again. And over the years, like April, the sense of inner loneliness I carry with me — which is in part an aspect of being me, Rebecca Burton, and in part an aspect of being me, a human being — has slowly become ensnared with the doubt I feel about my writing. [N]othing ever sticks, and she feels as if she is just pretending, playing alone outside a room she can no longer enter. Yup. Yup. Yup.

Ever since I wrote my first novel and it was accepted for publication, I’ve believed, with all of my heart, that writing books was something I would do for the rest of my life, because that’s what writers do, right? It’s what they want to do. It’s their privilege, and their gift. Or so the story goes.

But I just don’t think I believe that particular story anymore. That’s what I finally realised this week, after all this time. I don’t think — as April thinks, in this passage which I have loved so much for so long — that I am a failure as a writer, or as a person, if I stop writing, for a while, or forever. I think the world is bigger than that.

I don’t know what the future holds for me if I’m not a writer anymore — for now, or for a while, or forever. But you know what? Unlike April, I want to find out.

It’s a big, big world.

Unpacked

Other people’s words about … surfing and the sea

Nearly all of what happens in the water is ineffable — language is no help. Wave judgment is fundamental, but how to unpack it? You’re sitting in a trough between waves, and you can’t see past the approaching swell, which will not become a wave you can catch. You start paddling upcoast and seaward. Why? If the moment was frozen, you could explain that, by your reckoning, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the next wave will have a good takeoff spot about ten yards over and a little farther out from where you are now. This calculation is based on: your last two or three glimpses of the swells outside, each glimpse caught from the crest of a previous swell; the hundred-plus waves you have seen break in the past hour and a half; your cumulative experience of three or four hundred sessions at this spot, including fifteen or twenty days that were much like this one in terms of swell size, swell direction, wind speed, wind direction, tide, season, and sandbar configuration; the way the water seems to be moving across the bottom; the surface texture and the water colour; and, beneath these elements, innumerable subcortical perceptions too subtle and fleeting to express. The last factors are like the ones that the ancient Polynesian navigators relied upon when, on the open seas, they used to lower themselves into the water between the outriggers on their canoes and let their testicles tell them where in the great ocean they were.

Of course, the moment can’t be frozen.

From ‘Barbarian Days’
by William Finnegan

My partner is in his mid-fifties now, and, like William Finnegan, has been surfing since he was a teenager. Though he and I are both avid beach-lovers, I know that when he looks at the sea, he sees something different from what I see.

I (from my admittedly middle-class, Western, leisured perspective) look at the sea for beauty. I don’t understand the sea’s tides, its swells, its waves. I understand, simply, how the sea makes me feel.

It’s hard to express my feelings about the sea in actual words, though. They are, to use Finnegan’s words in a slightly different way, subtle, fleeting,subcortical, ineffable.

And … good.



Snatched phrases on … birds

‘It was eluding her again: the essence of bird.’

From ‘Nest
by Inga Simpson

I love this sentence. Jen, the protagonist of Nest, is an artist, and in this passage she is trying to draw a fairy wren.

I’m not an artist; in fact, I’m spectacularly untalented when it comes to drawing. But I know the feeling of trying to capture — in a photograph, perhaps, or in conversation, or in writing — what you see when you see a bird. To say that a bird flies, or that it sings, or that it is beautiful is true, but those descriptions come nowhere near to capturing what a bird really is, or how it makes you feel.

The essence of bird. Perhaps it will always elude me, as it does Jen. Perhaps that’s part of the fascination.

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.

Snatched phrases on … the sea

‘The sea pronounces something,
over and over, in a hoarse whisper;
I cannot quite make it out. But God knows I have tried.’

From ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’
by Annie Dillard

Sometimes when I’m walking on the beach I close my eyes and listen to the sea as I keep walking. It’s a way of shutting out the beauty of the visual world, in order to concentrate on the other kinds of beauty accessible to me at that moment, in that particular space.

The sea murmurs.
It sighs.
It whispers.
It roars.

Like Dillard, the language of the sea is one I can’t make out …

… although unlike her I’m not sure that I want to try.

I’m happy just to keep listening.

Snatched phrases on … the sea

‘They’d ended up sitting on the beach,
the sea a great black heaving beast,
sighing and rolling under the white light of the moon.’

From ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog
by Georgia Blain

I don’t have any photographs to accompany this post because I still haven’t yet managed to get the hang of the craft of night-time photography. But isn’t that a wonderful image of the sea at night? — that great black heaving beast, sighing and rolling. It makes me want to go for a night-time walk on the beach right now …