On asides

February 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

Other people’s words about … other people

Some writers describe nature beautifully; some express their characters’ inner lives with great insight and pathos; some describe people pithily. I came across two writers of the latter kind recently.

How’s the following for a description of someone, for example?

He had the countenance of someone who’d weathered a thousand tiny insults; they were etched into the lines of his forehead and cheeks. He had the drawn, inelastic face of either a serious smoker (with no time for the inconvenience of food) or a fastidious vegan whose pursuit of a healthy lifestyle had left him on the verge of sickness.

from ‘A Smell of Burning: The Story of Epilepsy
by Colin Grant
(p. 2)

Colin Grant’s book is a memoir about life with a brother who lived with, and ultimately died from, epilepsy. It’s also a history of epilepsy’s treatment (both cultural and medical) over the last two millennia. But it was Grant’s descriptions of people which really held me.

He held disgust in his nose, a magnificent diaphanous beak with thread-like blue veins and tobacco stains on the nostril hair and dividing septum, usually slightly cocked and in a permanent sneer.
(p. 16)

After I’d finished reading A Smell of Burning, I moved on (in a completely non-sequitur fashion) to Angela Carter. I’d never read any of her novels before, though people had told me over and over that I should. I’m still only partway through The Magic Toyshop, but already, I’m relishing Carter’s descriptions of the characters who populate her story.

Here she is on five-year-old Victoria:

Victoria had no sense of guilt. She had no sense at all. She was a round, golden pigeon who cooed. She rolled in the sun and tore butterflies into little pieces when she could catch them.
(p. 6)

And here’s her description of twelve-year-old Jonathan:

Jonathon ate like a blind force of nature, clearing through mounds of food like a tank through the side of a house. He ate until there was no more to eat; then stopped, put knife and fork or spoon and fork together neatly, wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and went away to make model boats.
(p. 4)

Meanwhile, when Melanie, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Carter’s story, first meets Finn, she watches him from afar before he notices her. When she does capture his attention, he fixes his gaze upon her before speaking:

His eyes were a curious grey green. His Atlantic-coloured regard went over Melanie like a wave; she submerged in it. She would have been soaked if it had been water.
(p. 38)

These are snatched phrases, I guess, more than anything. But that’s the thing about the experience of reading: it’s not just about plot, or emotion, or catharsis. It’s about the little things, too: the words and the phrases; the asides and the diversions. The sentences I’ve quoted above aptly capture the essence of the people they’re depicting: they made me smile in recognition (and wry admiration) and then re-read them, just in case I didn’t miss anything. And, like the characters they’re describing, they stayed in my mind long after I’d put the books aside to get on with the business of my day.

They stayed in my mind. I can think of no greater praise for someone’s ability to write — and no greater reason to keep on reading — than that.

Inhabitant

February 16, 2017 § 4 Comments

Other people’s words about … noticing

Over the last year I have discovered a passion for birds and wildflowers in particular, along with the ever-present kangaroos. I love the texture of bark, the colour of leaves and mosses, I’m utterly fascinated with the fact that I can walk around our small patch of natural bushland each day and find something I’ve never noticed before. Or find something I have noticed before, but it catches my eye for a different reason.

from ‘Fifteen Acres: A Small Slice of Paradise‘ blog
by Lisa from Central Victoria, Australia

I came across Lisa’s blog only recently and instantly realised she is a kindred blogger. Her blog documents her growing understanding of, knowledge about, and love for all the species of native flora and fauna that live on her block of land in rural Central Victoria. I get the feeling that Lisa has learned about her patch of land in the same way I’ve learned about Aldinga Scrub — by walking through it day after day and simply observing.

Like Lisa, I didn’t expect to become fascinated by the plants and creatures living on my doorstep. It just happened. I didn’t even know about Aldinga Scrub until after we moved to Aldinga Beach: it was the beach — with its beautiful cliffs, its blue waters, its fish-inhabited and bird-dotted reef, its wide sands — which initially attracted me.

The first time I walked through the Scrub, I was just curious. I had heard that it was the last remnant of original coastal bushland in South Australia, and so I wanted to see what it was like. A year later, going through another phase of feeling inexplicably agitated and uncomfortable in my own skin, I decided to try walking through the Scrub more often. I thought that, if I made the effort to look outwards at the world around me instead of looking inwards into my own seething internal landscape, I might find solace.

And I did.

A small kind of miracle happened as I walked through the Scrub over and over. As I wandered, I began to wonder. As I wondered, I stopped. As I stopped, I observed. As I observed, I noticed, as Lisa puts it. And then, at last, I started to see and to learn.

Something else happened, too. I began to inhabit the world around me during those walks. Inhabitation — it’s a powerful word. Maybe it’s pretentious. Maybe it’s corny? And yet that’s how it feels.

It never stops, this seeing, learning, wondering, inhabiting. That’s another kind of miracle.

The pictures in this post are photographs I’ve taken over the years on my walks through the Scrub. Here you can see it in its many moods, its many seasons, its many tempers. I don’t know if my photographs can convey the wonder I felt as I took them, or the remembered sense of discovery I feel now when I return to them, but I hope that they convey, at least, the deep joy that my wandering has brought me.

That’s the thing, you see — noticing is both a humble and a joyful process. It’s a privilege to inhabit this kind of joy.

Of love and tomatoes

February 13, 2017 § 2 Comments

Other people’s words about … tomato sandwiches

I’d asked [my disabled friend] Jessie when a doctor had last looked at her. She couldn’t remember, so [while Jessie was staying with me] I went to my doctor, still Jock Ledingham’s wife, Una, at her practice, which was in their home in Ladbroke Square.

Una listened to me kindly, and then asked if anyone was nursing her. ‘Only me.’ There was an awkward pause, and then I added, hardly audible, ‘And I’m afraid I’m very bad at it.’ Lack of food and sleep made me start crying again.

‘I’m going to make you a tomato sandwich,’ she said. ‘All my family can manage a tomato sandwich whatever they are feeling like.’ She did, and I ate it, and felt much better.

from ‘Slipstream: A Memoir
by Elizabeth Jane Howard (p. 147)

When I was a child, my mother would sometimes make my sister and me tomato rolls for dinner instead of our usual cooked meal. This was a summertime-only ritual — she saved it for those evenings when the air was thick and heavy with heat. My sister and I would have spent the day dipping in and out of the swimming pool, so that our skin and hair reeked of chlorine. We’d come inside and stretch out on the carpet in the living-room at the front of our house, next to an electric fan. We’d read, or watch the cricket on television, or play Lego, or colour in, while the fan blew warm air over us and our hair dripped down our backs, forming great wet circles on our t-shirts. And then, at last, it was dinnertime.

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My mother made her tomato rolls with white bread — the kind that is crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside. She cut the rolls lengthwise in thirds rather than in halves, and then spread each layer thickly with butter. Over the butter she laid slices of tomato. Then, as a last touch, she seasoned the tomato with salt. (Never pepper. Children hate pepper.)

These were the days before Australians of Anglosaxon heritage knew about things like basil or coriander, ricotta or feta. We had never eaten avocado or garlic or extra virgin olive oil. We didn’t know of the existence of focaccia bread or ciabatta or sourdough. Most people ate margarine in preference to butter, thinking it was a healthier option. And we ate salt with everything — we lived in a hot climate, after all; we needed to replace the salt we’d sweated out during the day. So a tomato roll was just what it sounded like: a tomato roll. Nothing more, nothing less.

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It’s almost forty years since I ate one of my mother’s tomato rolls, and yet when I read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s words above about the curative powers of a tomato sandwich, I was instantly transported back to those simple summer meals my mother made us.

Bread. Butter. Tomatoes. Salt. I still think of this particular combination of food as the ultimate luxury, the greatest treat.

And as a symbol of my mother’s love.

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Note:
All the photos in this post depict our vegetable plot,  a plot at the back of our garden which my partner zealously tends, and which, despite his cheerful disregard for the weeds choking the vines, produces the most delicious tomatoes each year. Gardening, too, can be an act of love.

Snatched phrases (on the sea)

February 4, 2017 § 1 Comment

‘[I] stare at the water.
It’s shot with moon, silver leaking all over the surface.’

from ‘Words in Deep Blue
by Cath Crowley

Okay, so I don’t have any photos of the sea in moonlight, because I have as yet to figure out night-time photography.

But the words above reminded me of one of the things I love about the sea, and one of the reasons I so frequently post other people’s words about it, accompanied by my own photos: I love how the sea changes colour, depending on the season, the temperature, the weather, the time of day, the tide. The colours you see below — blue, green, pewter, turquoise, gold, silver — are just some of the many colours of the sea.

You may recognise some of these photos from earlier posts on this blog. Forgive the repetitiveness. That is one of the things about the ocean, I think: the wonder it instils in you, each time you see it, each time you visit it. It repeats itself, over and over.

From one year to the next

January 28, 2017 § 3 Comments

Other people’s words about … loneliness

She had told herself more than once not to call it loneliness, since it wasn’t any different from one year to the next, it was just how her body felt, like hungry or tired, except it was always there, always the same. Now and again she had distracted herself from it for a while. And it always came back and felt worse.

from ‘Lila
by Marilynne Robinson

A couple of years ago, I began to experience recurrent bouts of unexplained nausea. The waves of sickness came every three or four weeks, and left me feeling depleted and frustrated. My symptoms of illness were made more difficult by the fear that accompanied them: a fear that I’ve touched on here and here, and will no doubt touch on again.

In her memoir Slipstream, Elizabeth Jane Howard mentions in passing a phase in her life, when she was a young woman, during which she experienced something like this.

In those days, I had bouts of being unable to eat that sometimes lasted for weeks. This seemed to be one of them. I was very tired from my illness, but encouragement to build up my strength by these kindly people was of no avail. I’d sit before an immense juicy steak and delicious salad, trying to swallow the first pieces of meat, my stomach heaving, and wanting to cry from embarrassment. ‘I’m so sorry. I don’t eat much,’ I had to say.

It was my mother who, just recently, introduced me to Slipstream. When I read the passage above, I wished that Howard was still alive, so that I could write to her and thank her for these words. It helps, when you are going through difficult times, or when you are experiencing something troubling and bewildering for which you yourself have no words, to read someone else’s words on the same thing. Here is Howard again:

I had no energy for writing, I didn’t like living alone, and I could hardly drag myself to the office every other week to earn the six pounds that barely kept the wolf from the door … I remember the misery of sitting in restaurants faced with enormous menus and finally asking for something like a piece of cold chicken only some of which I managed to force down.

During the worst phase of my own bouts of nausea, I felt my life began to fold in on itself. Although I wasn’t ill all the time — although there were days and weeks when I felt well: days, even, when I felt as though I’d never feel sick again — those bouts took a toll on me. I called in sick at work frequently, and worried about the consequences. (Would I be put on a performance plan? Would I get sacked? What if I couldn’t hold my job down anymore? How would I live with myself if I couldn’t make a living?) I worried about my social life. (What if I lost all my friends because I kept cancelling on them at the last moment? What if they didn’t believe me when I told them I was sick? What if they thought I was just neurotic, or antisocial?) And I fretted about people in my family, whom I wanted to see more frequently than I did. (Did they know I still loved them? Did my absence hurt them? Were they, too, judging me?) I began to feel disabled on all fronts — by my symptoms of illness, by my fear of those symptoms, and by my shame about my fear.

The sickness happens less often now, I am glad to say, though it still comes, accompanied by symptoms that feel worse than they sound: fatigue, headaches, nausea, heavy eyes, weak limbs. I am as yet to find a cause. In the meantime, when I do experience bouts of illness like this, I try not to let myself feel the way I felt during that worst phase. Isolated is one word that comes to mind to describe the way I felt. Lonely is another.

And here is where reading helps. Reading Howard’s words I feel a sense of kinship. The kinship makes me reflect, as I so often do, that writing is an act of sharing, and that sometimes — sometimes — reading can feel like a defence against loneliness.

It wasn’t until I read Toni Bernhard’s How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness that it finally became clear to me that illness — whether it’s serious or mild, whether it’s intermittent or constant, whether it’s accompanied by fear or not — is, inherently, lonely. Experienced long-term, it is all the more so. Bernhard, who lives with a fatigue-related chronic illness that keeps her largely bedridden, is illuminating on the theme. She writes:

In these moments when I accept that some of the people I know may never understand what life with chronic illness is like for me, I’m able to let go of the painful longing and fruitless desire for them to behave as I want them to. It’s like putting down a heavy load because I’m finally giving up a fight I cannot win. This gives rise to equanimity –- that calm sense of peace and well-being with my life as it is, whether others understand it or not.

Read those sentences again: Some of the people I know may never understand. Those words go to the heart of loneliness. So do these: painful longing. Fruitless desire. Illness should not entail any of these kinds of feelings, but it does. It is a very lonely experience. (If you are experiencing illness-related loneliness, I highly recommend Bernhard’s book. Her words are both wise and comforting. They may even impart a sense of kinship.)

The main character in Marilynne Robinson’s book, from which I quoted at the top of this post, is lonely in another way. Lila’s loneliness is the result of poverty and an extreme lack of love in her upbringing, and her experience of it is utterly embodied. I’ve never heard loneliness described this way before, but I find the interpretation as enlightening as Bernhard’s. Loneliness, Robinson is saying, is a physical — a visceral — thing. It is as much a part of living as hunger and fatigue; it is with us from our first breath to our last. Like illness, it is a part of the cycle of being alive in this world.

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Perhaps the difficulty we have with loneliness, then, is not so much with its actual presence, nor with its cause — whatever that may be — as it is with the way we experience it and interpret it. I find this thought strangely consoling.

Is it possible to feel consolation and loneliness simultaneously? Probably — but it’s much harder.

Note:
There are a number of bloggers who write about their experience of living with serious or long-term illness. Here is where the blogging community comes into its own! Two bloggers whose frank, clear-sighted words on illness I particularly admire are Elana Amsterdam of Elana’s Pantry, who lives with Multiple Sclerosis and writes about managing her illness through a grain-free diet and a low-stress lifestyle, and Ali Feller from Ali on the Run, a passionate runner who blogs about living (and running) with Crohn’s Disease.

Snatched phrases (on the sea)

January 26, 2017 § Leave a comment

‘The sea was getting its gnarly face on,
looking a little dented and chipped.

There was a bank of gray clouds in the distance … ‘

from ‘This is the Story of You’
by Beth Kephart

Acknowledgments

January 17, 2017 § Leave a comment

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 …

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