What, then, is this?

May 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

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?

Meadowlands

May 19, 2017 § 4 Comments

Other people’s words on … wandering

Musing takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, a part of the imagination that has not yet been plowed, developed, or put to any immediately practical use. Environmentalists are always arguing that those butterflies, those grasslands, those watershed woodlands, have an utterly necessary function in the grand scheme of things, even if they don’t produce a market crop. The same is true of the meadowlands of imagination; time spent there is not work time, yet without that time the mind becomes sterile, dull, domesticated. The fight for free space — for wilderness and public space — must be accompanied by a fight for free time to spend wandering in that space. Otherwise the individual imagination will be bulldozed over for the chain-store outlets of consumer appetite, true-crime titillations, and celebrity crises.

from ‘Wanderlust
by Rebecca Solnit

Most of you would know by now that one of the greatest pleasures in my life is wandering: along the beach, through the Scrub. We read a great deal these days about the value of high-intensity exercise (the dreaded HIIT), and though I understand the principle — short bursts of intense exercise, in order to get your heart going — I find the practice intimidating and somewhat soulless. I’m not interested in exercising purely to become ‘fit’, or to ‘get healthy’, or to try to do something epic.

What I’m interested in is wellbeing — a concept that includes mental, emotional and spiritual aspects as well as the more obvious physical ones.

That’s why I like to wander. Wandering, for me, can be a slow stroll through the bush, or it can be a steady march along the shore. Hopping on my bike and riding places — that’s a form of wandering, too. It’s about breathing in fresh air, moving through beautiful surroundings, looking around, and — yes — musing. As Solnit points out, it’s about being unfettered in time as well as space. Musing takes place in a kind of meadowlands of the imagination, she says.

Oh, yes.

So today’s round-up of photos comes from another one of my recent wanders through the Scrub, back at the end of April. It was a dull, still day, and not many of the plants were in flower. The bush seemed stripped of bright colour: it was all earthy greens and sandy browns. The birdsong was muted, too — the whistlers don’t call much at this time of year; the shrike thrush songs are shorter and softer than in the warmer months. A crow croaked and muttered in the distance, and I heard snatches of broken magpie song.

But then I noticed the banksia trees, which were all in flower. I hadn’t seen them at first because I’d stepped in from a louder, brighter world beyond the Scrub, a world of fences and bitumen streets and painted houses. Banksia leaves are a dark, khaki green, and the flowers blend in with the surrounding vegetation, varying in colour from pale yellow, through light green, to drab brown. Their beauty is as muted as the birdsong I described above, and in order not to miss it — in order to appreciate it — you have to be willing to slow down. To stop. To muse.

And that is what I did.

A prayer

May 12, 2017 § 4 Comments

Other people’s words about … the view

At the back of the hotel was a garden. Along its edge ran an earthen pathway pillared by palms. it ended in a low iron gate. They had not noticed the gate before, but now they saw it opened directly onto the beach. Stepping through the gate, they were confronted by the white and blue of ocean and beach in limpid morning light. Bare-chested fishermen were pushing wooden boats into the surf, chanting prayers together for luck. Women in fluorescent knee-high saris walked past in pairs and threes, with fish-baskets on their heads.

From ‘Sleeping on Jupiter
by Anurahda Roy

First, an update: we didn’t go camping at Yorke Peninsula during my fortnight of annual leave as we’d planned, after all. For a variety of reasons, it was impossible to get away. Instead, we spent the two weeks flitting back and forth between our main home in Taperoo (a coastal suburb twenty kilometres north of Adelaide, where most of my jetty photos originate) and our old beach shack at Aldinga (a coastal suburb forty-five kilometres south of Adelaide, where many of my other beach photos come from). So the view from the steps down to the beach was different from the one I’d anticipated, though it was still a view to revel in.

A view to revel in

I complained recently about my dread of autumn and winter, those months of the year I always think of as the grey months. But my complaints this year were premature. Sometimes in South Australia, in the early weeks of autumn, the wind dies off, giving way to still, sunny days; endless blue skies; cold, clear nights. That’s how it’s been here for the last four weeks. I could not have picked better weather for a holiday by the sea, even without the campfires I’d hoped for.

One afternoon at Aldinga I took a walk heading south along the beach, beyond the spot where cars are permitted to drive onto the beach to launch fishing boats. It was one of those days where the horizon — that mysterious line between the sky and the sea — seems almost invisible. A boat glided over the surface, somehow suspended between the two, and the headland in the distance was shrouded in a mist of sea spray. The sea changed colour as I walked, from opaque blue, to glassy blue, and then to silver.

Tyre tracks in the sand

Invisible horizon

Gliding boat

Sea spray shrouding the headland

Opaque blue

Glassy blue

Silver and shining

As I walked, I thought about the words I’ve quoted right at the top of this post. I write about the beach here on my blog as a place, always, of beauty and wonder: a place where I swim and stroll, wander and wonder. But that’s a very Western, privileged, twenty-first-century way of viewing it, isn’t it? The beach in the world Anurahda Roy describes — modern-day India — is another place entirely; and her sea is a different entity. In her world, the sea provides the means for people to strive to make a living, and the making of that living obscures the beautiful view.

I am lucky enough, mostly, not to feel the need to chant a morning prayer for luck, as the fishermen in Roy’s passage do. But if I were the praying type, I would utter a prayer of thanks for the view of the beach I had that day, and for every day I get to live by it.

Snatched phrases (on insomnia)

May 6, 2017 § 1 Comment

‘Some nights sleep wouldn’t come to her at all.
A wakefulness bloomed in her,
so intense it was as if
something made of needles were trying to claw its way out.’

from ‘The Restorer’
by Michael Sala

A breakfast of clouds and chocolate

May 1, 2017 § 6 Comments

Other people’s words about … what works

Chocolate at breakfast has always seemed wrong to me somehow. It seemed too decadent and lusty, entirely out of place, like watching a sex scene on television when your parents are in the room. But I have now spent eight mornings eating chocolate granola for breakfast, and I have concluded –- with all due gratitude to [my husband] Brandon, my personal granola pusher –- that chocolate is, once and for all, perfectly acceptable at any time of day. I had been a doubter for so many years, but now, good lord, I get it. And I think this revelation might, quite possibly, be the cosmic purpose of our marriage.

From ‘All We Ever Really Want to Do
by Molly Wizenberg of Orangette blog

I came to Molly Wizenberg’s blog only recently, many years behind most people. There are so many cooking blogs out there in the internet-world now, and so many of them are so beautiful, that it is easy to feel overwhelmed, or bored, or cynical. Moreover, the idea of using a recipe to introduce a post that discusses a theme entirely unrelated to food — in other words, to discuss life — has become such a common approach amongst food bloggers that it seems to me to be verging on the clichéd. But Molly was one of the early bloggers to take this approach, and she writes well, which makes all the difference. I will be reading her blog again, I’m sure.

As for chocolate at breakfast — well, why not? A therapist I used to see once said to me, as I agonised over how to live my life better (or rather, how not to live it so very, very badly): Life is short. Do what works. Though I’ve left much of his counsel far behind, I think about these particular words of his from time to time. Life is short, indeed. If chocolate works, then eat it. Please.

(Alternatively, you could try cake. Cake never fails for me.)

Meanwhile, today is my first day of two weeks’ annual leave. I currently have two part-time jobs, so time away from both of them simultaneously can be hard to pull off. (It has only just occurred to me that I live between two houses, too — do you sense a theme here?) The next fortnight feels incredibly precious to me.

For some of that time, I plan to go camping in Yorke Peninsula again, with my partner and my dog. Autumn is in full swing now: our holiday there will be different from our last trip to Yorkes, back in February. There will be clouds; there will be rain; there will be wind. Now that the fire-ban season is over, we’ll light a fire at sunset and sit together by the flames, looking up at the sky as the stars come out. It will be too cold to swim, so we’ll walk miles down the beach and along the clifftops. We’ll sleep late into the morning and go to bed early at night. My partner will surf; my dog will play and sleep; and I will read.

I’ll read.

I’ll read.

Afterwards, we’ll come home grateful for heaters and hot showers, and ready — already — for our next camping trip, whenever that happens to be.

I don’t know if, like Molly, I’ll be eating chocolate for breakfast while we’re away. It doesn’t matter. Life is short, and these are the things that work for me. That’s why I do them.

All in all, it’s not such a bad way to live.

The big ‘I’

April 26, 2017 § 4 Comments

Other people’s words about … the view

Sit. Quietly. Turn your awareness to your heart space.

Now imagine you’re sitting on a small wooden bench with yourself. Imagine you’re doing so in that space in the centre of your chest. There you are, sitting to your right, the little nattering humanoid that you are, berating yourself for eating too much at lunch and debating whether to hang the washing out or not. This little nattering self is your little ‘i’. You (the big ‘I’) can watch it all. Yep, there you are, sitting quietly, looking out at a view, over treetops down to an ocean. On your little bench. Together. You’re just hanging, nowhere to go, nothing to do. The two of you …

From ‘First, We Make the Beast Beautiful
by Sarah wilson

It was my friend and fellow blogger, Anne, who first alerted me to the appeal of benches — I mean, real benches, in real life. In her ‘Bench Series‘, she posts photos of benches that she’s snapped from all over the world. I’d never really looked at benches before, except as convenient things to sit on while I rested and took a moment to enjoy the view before me. Now I find myself noticing them (and photographing them) all the time.

The kind of bench Sarah Wilson describes in the passage I’ve quoted above, though, is a metaphorical bench, one that you can only find within yourself. It’s a place where you can sit while you encounter, and learn to accommodate, your two selves: the busy, superficial, language-oriented self that churns out thoughts night and day, and the deeper, quieter, wordless self that lies beneath all the nagging chatter.

The idea of the two selves isn’t unique to Wilson. It’s an idea common to many systems of thought, one we’ve all become more familiar with since the recent popularisation of mindfulness-based practices and therapies. But I particularly like the way she uses the image of sitting on a bench to explain it. It’s a simple, vivid, accessible reminder of how easy it is to get caught up in (and believe) your own thoughts. 

A thought, after all, is only that: a thought. It may be true; it may not. Thoughts and the truth exist independently of each other. When I first came across this idea (here), it seemed both counterintuitive and revolutionary to me. I’m still grappling with it.

Wilson again:

And then it might occur to you that your little mate ‘i’ is just that — a little mate sitting next to you. And that this Big ‘I’ is who you really are. It feels deep and close and yet so vast.

Okay, I’ll admit I winced, at first, when I read these words. First, I’m not sure that the quieter self (the one Wilson calls the Big ‘I’) is deep or close or vast — or, indeed, in any way somehow ‘better’ than any other part of our self. I think that it just is.

Second, I was troubled by her use of the phrase little mate both to describe the thinking self, and to distinguish that self from the non-thinking self. I found the phrase overly colloquial, like some kind of condescending attempt to make a difficult concept more user-friendly to her less educated readers. But I have slowly come to feel the opposite way about her wording. The word mate implies friendship: it implies love, acceptance, forgiveness. Also fun. That’s helpful, I think. Why vilify a part of yourself, when you can instead smile and make friends with it?

Wilson uses meditation to find her bench. As you know, I don’t. But I don’t think that matters. What matters is that you know the bench exists — and that you know how to find it, however you get there.

And whether or not your prefer your benches real (like the ones in the photographs I took for today’s post, both of which are to be found in Aldinga Scrub) or whether you prefer them metaphorical, I wish you many sun-dappled, peaceful benches of your own in your life, wherever you happen to be.

Snatched phrases (on the world at our feet)

April 22, 2017 § Leave a comment

‘If he put his feet in to the water here at the beach in Jarmuli,
he was dipping them in the universe.’

From ‘Sleeping on Jupiter’
by Anuradha Roy

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