At ease on this earth

22/09/2016 § 3 Comments

Other people’s words about … beauty

I am haunted by waters. It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby.

from To the River
by Olivia Laing

Haunted by waters. Isn’t that a beautiful phrase?

Though the words I’ve quoted above are about a river rather than the sea, still, they ring true for me. For most of my adult life — except for the two or three years I spent in my early twenties, travelling and working abroad — I have chosen to live within walking distance of the sea. In my late twenties and thirties, as I’ve mentioned before, I lived in a series of share households: different houses every eighteen months or so, different housemates. But each of those houses was close to the sea.

These days, I divide my time between two homes. The houses themselves are roughly seventy kilometres apart — one north of Adelaide, one south — but they are both just a few minutes’ walk to the beach. Open a window in either of them, and you can hear waves rolling onto shore. Step onto the front porch, and you’ll smell seaweed drying out beyond the water’s reach — a damp, bleached, faintly rotten smell. Look around indoors, and you’ll see drifts of sand piling up in the corners.

The sea surrounds me. It’s how I make sense of things. It’s how I feel at ease.

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There’s another phrase I love in the words above: susceptible to beauty.

Like anyone else, I have good days and bad days. There are days when I feel at home, here on this earth: when my skin feels comfortable beneath the layers of my clothes, and the warmth of the sun feels kind and good. And there are days when the world seems vast, alien, spinning, remote. What gets me through those latter kinds of day are tiny moments of beauty, out there by the water: pinpricks of sunlight sparkling on the tips of waves, like sequins on a piece of cloth; clouds chasing across the horizon, billowing and grey; a cluster of yellow flowers growing in the dip of a dune, petals cupped to reflect the light.

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I took the photographs you see here late one August afternoon, just a few weeks ago. Sitting at my desk, working at my computer, I felt hemmed in suddenly: by streets and footpaths, by fences and cement driveways, by the sound of my neighbour hawking up sputum in his bathroom. The longing to get away from all of that was so strong it felt akin to starving. I felt hollow through and through.

I shut down my computer, stepped outside, and walked down the road to the sea.

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Five minutes later there I was, standing on the sand, looking out at the water and the sky. It was close to sunset and I wandered a while along the shore, released at last: from work and worry and words. And I saw something, then, that I don’t know how to describe, though I’ll try: I saw spring coming. The air had a certain quality to it — a softness, perhaps, after the steely bleakness of winter. I thought that if I reached out with my hand I might touch that beautiful softness. It seemed possible, just for a moment.

Looking at the photographs now, I don’t see what I did then. Perhaps you don’t, either. But I know that I saw it, all the same. It was one of those moments — those tiny moments of beauty — to which I, like Olivia Laing, am susceptible.

I am grateful for those moments, is what I’m trying to say. They give me a kind of gladness. They bring me home.

The reader

08/09/2016 § 7 Comments

Other people’s words about … books

She has always been the reader — no-one else in the family is that interested. She had carted her books from house to house as a student, the boxes growing in number each time, keeping them because she could not imagine doing otherwise, and because she thought that there was something permanent in a book, that it lasted forever. But now, when she takes an older paperback out to reread or loan, she is surprised at how fragile it has become, the paper threatening to tear in her hands if she turns the page, tiny black specks embedded in its tissue pages; bugs, probably. She should have cleared them out, she thinks. Packed them up in boxes for recycling. No-one would want them when she was gone.

From ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog
by Georgia Blain

I grew up in a house in which every room contained a bookcase or a wall lined with bookshelves. I remember kneeling in front of those shelves as a child, scanning them, trying to make sense of the order in which they had been shelved, trying — with a child’s sense of incomprehension — to understand the titles. There were lots of orange paperback spines (oh, those old Penguin classics!). There were fat, hardback dictionaries — volume after volume of them. There were thick novels with white covers and raised lettering. There were books with titles like Fear of Flying, which didn’t seem to be about flying at all. There were books with titles containing words like ‘teach’ and ‘literature’ and ‘linguistics’ and ‘semantics’.

And none of these books had pictures in them.

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I made a vow when I was about seven or eight years old that I would never, ever read an adult book. The books on my parents’ shelves seemed to be about — or to come from — a disturbing adult world: a world of which I knew I wanted no part. And so the first time I read a book without any illustrations, I felt half-proud, and half-afraid. Was I crossing over to adulthood now, after all? Could I stop myself? It seemed not. Reading, in the end, was more than just enjoyable: it was essential.

As a young woman, I lived for many years in a series of rented houses and share households. My housemates and I each had our own bedroom, but we shared saucepans and bowls and TVs and washing machines. We talked about the films we wanted to see, the music we liked to listen to, the books we had just read. We cooked for each other and shared bottles of cheap red wine and chardonnay. We borrowed novels from the local library, and bought tattered secondhand paperbacks from the local op shop.

During those years, I stored any books I owned on a makeshift shelf that I’d constructed by putting bricks on my bedroom floor and laying a plank of wood over the top of the bricks. Later, I went through a phase where I decided that lettuce crates were a cool way to store my books. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a proper bookshelf. I was afraid, I think, of making the commitment. A bookshelf spelled permanency. It spelled adulthood. It spelled turning into your parents. I wasn’t going to do that. (Why, I wonder, are we so fervently against turning into our elders when we are young? Now I would be honoured to think I was, or am, like either of my parents.)

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I don’t remember exactly when I gave in to owning a bookshelf: to growing up, to admitting, happily, that I shared my parents’ passion for literature. I am glad that I did, though. The books on my shelves may one day fade, their pages tearing, their covers warping with damp. They may seem meaningless to anyone else. And yet there is something permanent in them: there is something that lasts forever, despite their physical frailty.

Reading transports to you another world: a world of someone else’s creation. It makes you feel things — sadness, joy, anger, bewilderment. Writers share their worlds with us; their books are their gifts. Those gifts leave an imprint on us. You can’t store that imprint on a plank of wood resting on a brick. You can’t stack it in a lettuce crate. And you certainly can’t pack it up and recycle it.

Note:
As you may have noticed, I have recently dropped the frequency of my posts a little. I hope to pop in with a post roughly fortnightly or so, but … quality rather than quantity, right?! And there is only so much reading one woman — or this woman, at any rate — can do …

A bitter pill to swallow

24/08/2016 § 2 Comments

Other people’s words about … cures

We feel sick even if we are physically well. We are organically diseased by lack or excess. Most of our healers — mainstream and alternative — now act and are treated like shopkeepers, and have become entrepreneurs (or the pawns of entrepreneurs). If they don’t give us the goods — the diagnosis and pill — we’ll shop elsewhere. We seek passive means of attaining health and longevity, which is what medicine (both conventional and alternative) promotes. We want diagnoses. We want solutions we can browse, buy and swallow, be they pharmaceuticals, tinctures or vitamins. It’s convenient for politicians, suits industry very nicely. Pills are our tiny white black holes: absorbing all our hope, agency and energy. They divert attention from prevention, population health and inequity; they promote consumption.

from ‘Too many pills?
by Karen Hitchcock
in The Monthly magazine (September 2015)

I like Hitchcock’s thinking. A doctor who works on the acute medical ward of a big city hospital, she pulls no punches when it comes to discussing health in our society.

Health, she says, is more than just a physical issue. It is an issue of combined mental, physical, environmental, interpersonal, social and political factors.

Too many pills?

Too many pills?

I can’t do justice to her argument here. It is complex and passionate, encompassing the need for both personal action (at the individual level) and social action (at the socio-political level). And it is about considering the idea of a cure not as something we can buy but rather as something we should do.

And, oh, these are words well worth reading.

An open door

18/08/2016 § Leave a comment

Other people’s words about … inspiring teachers

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I brought Vera to one of [my mother’s] lectures. It was held in the quadrangle at Sydney Uni and the hall was packed. Vera and I squeezed in at the back next to the open window and then my mother made her entrance, rushing in with a briefcase under her arm. She didn’t know we were there and didn’t see us. Applause broke out, brief but enthusiastic.

‘Oh,’ she said as she reached the front, ‘you are being entirely silly and adorable.’ And then she put on her reading glasses and began the lecture. I didn’t hear a word of what she was saying. I just kept thinking that I too would have clapped had I not known her. There had always been a kind of heat emanating from her. People responded to it, and that day was no exception; that day she made everyone feel that Political Science 101 was a gateway to a brilliantly inspired life.

from ‘What the Light Hides
by Mette Jakobsen

When I began my Arts degree at university, the one subject I refused to enrol in was the subject in which my father was a lecturer. I didn’t want to have the experience of being tutored by, or lectured to, or graded by, a parent. I wanted to make my own way through university, no strings attached.

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Still, word gets around. My father was an immensely popular lecturer: fallow students in other subjects began to come up to me and say incredulously, seeing the surname I shared with him, ‘I think your Dad’s my lecturer.’ The lecture theatre was always packed when it was his turn to speak. He told anecdotes that made students rock with laughter, and the passion he expressed for his subject lit up his eyes, filled his voice, guided his gestures. He was cool; he was a legend: friends told me this all the time. I know now, as I did then, that his students, walking under the shaded trees of that campus, strolling past the old stone buildings with the arched doorways and the spreading lawns, were lucky to have him.

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It’s a cliché, but teachers and lecturers really do change our lives. When I was in Year 12, I had a teacher who shared the same kind of popularity amongst students as my father did at university. She taught Australian history — a subject as dry and dusty as any you could think of, at least back then, in the days when the history of Australia’s first people was rarely considered or contemplated in high school classrooms. She took us through the history of the Australian Labor Party, the social history of (white) women in Australia, the beginning of national pride in Australia.

Like my father, she taught by telling stories. She had a flat, slightly croaky voice, and crinkled, grey hair through which she would push her hand as she walked between our desks. The whiff of cigarette smoke hung about her clothes — woollen jumpers, tweed skirts — leaving a trail behind her. She kept a sheaf of notes on her desk to consult if she needed to, which she rarely did. Mostly, she just talked. Sometimes her voice grew sad, sometimes urgent. If I close my eyes, I can still hear her talking.

Beyond history, she also taught us how to study. It was from her that I learned how to take notes, how to structure an essay, how to study for exams, how to practise good time management so that you could hand in an essay on time. I took those skills with me to university. I wasn’t happy socially the first time I attempted university — indeed, I left at the end of that first year and didn’t return for another six years or so — but I loved the academic challenge of the subjects I was studying, and I have my Year 12 Australian history teacher to thank for that. To this day, I still use the skills she taught us to structure anything I’m writing or drafting, and I rarely miss deadlines. That’s because of her.

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If you look closely, you’ll see a common theme in each of the photos I’ve chosen to accompany this post. They are all taken on or around my local campus, the University of Adelaide — and every one of them shows a door or a window. That’s because learning should be about opening doors, letting fresh air into our minds. It should be about allowing us to enter new worlds, to see things from a new perspective.

Gifted teachers guide us through this process — people like my history teacher, people like my father. They change our lives for the better.

In return, we carry their teaching with us for the rest of our lives. We never forget them.

Why I drink tea, not coffee

11/08/2016 § 5 Comments

Other people’s words about … tea

The MOTH (the Man of the House) thinks the world’s drowning in a tsunami of expensive [cappuccino] froth. He’s fighting the trend single-handedly. He drinks tea made from tea leaves. He doesn’t like ‘gift’ teas that arrive with house guests and distant cousins …

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Every morning and most evenings, the MOTH makes tea following the rules set down by his mother. Bring a kettle of water to a ‘rolling’ boil. Warm the teapot. Put in a generous measure of loose tea. Fill the pot with boiling water, replace the lid and wait patiently. In the meantime, put out china cups and saucers, teaspoons, the sugar bowl and a jug of milk. Hot buttered toast and a jar of homemade marmalade will do nicely as well.

From ‘Tea and Sympathy’ by Pat McDermott
featured in
The Australian Women’s Weekly, July 2016

Old-time readers of this blog will know of my love for tea by now. I would rather give up wine, chocolate or cheese than give up my daily pot(s) of tea.

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Many years ago, I attempted to become a coffee drinker. I was working as a student barista in a cafe in Port Adelaide at the time, and the coffees I made for my customers smelt enticing. There is nothing better than the smell of freshly brewed coffee.

But. I soon discovered that I am extremely sensitive to caffeine. Give me a cappuccino at nine o’clock in the morning, and I will be jittery and fidgety and twitchy all day. I won’t sleep. I’ll still be awake the next morning, heart hammering away, eyes dry and wide. And don’t even get me started on that sense of the walls of the room caving in on me …

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For years, I avoided drinking tea because I knew it also had caffeine in it, though in a smaller dose. It wasn’t until I met my partner, an inveterate tea-drinker, that I was tempted. Eventually, tea wooed me in just the way that coffee had once done. (Okay, maybe he did some wooing, too.)

Maybe it’s the smaller amount of caffeine. Maybe it’s psychological. Maybe it’s the ritual of tea-making: my grandmother’s Royal Worcester china, the pot, the brewing, the accompaniment of sourdough toast spread with a (thick!) layer of my mother’s grapefruit marmalade or my father’s quince jam. Whatever it is, I have found that I can handle the caffeine in tea.

I read recently in The Australian Healthy Food Guide (p. 14) that Lord Twining, of Twinings Tea fame, has been known to state that anything less than nine cups of tea per day is a totally unsatisfying tea-drinking day. Clearly, Lord Twining may have vested interests in making statements like this … but I can’t help admiring such a line of thinking, all the same.

And so … let the tea-drinking continue!

Inner world

04/08/2016 § 2 Comments

Other people’s words about … resilience

I think maybe [my father] liked the worlds in his head better than the real one. As far as I ever knew, he didn’t have any close friends … Once, when I was about nine or ten, I told him I wasn’t very popular at school. He told me that friends were overrated, because the only person you could ever really count on was yourself. Weirdly, that actually made me feel better.

from ‘Thanks for the Trouble
by Tommy Wallach

I am, I suppose, what most people would describe as introverted. There are other words that go along with this kind of description: shy, quiet, aloof, disengaged, uncertain, insecure, antisocial. Those are mostly negative words, I see. Perhaps they are coined by extroverts.

The year that we lived in England, I was at my most introverted: I had no friends at all. (Here’s a question: do you end up without friends because you are introverted, or do you become introverted because you have no friends?) I was fourteen, and I wandered those long school corridors with the white polished floors alone. I wore the wrong clothes, and I had the wrong accent, and I lived life at the wrong pace and the wrong volume. At lunch I sat in one of the stalls in the girls’ toilets, waiting the hour out. I listened to girls coming in and out, the cubicle doors swinging, the toilets flushing. My breath caught on the sweet spray of perfume they doused themselves with as they stood before the mirrors. I listened to their chatter, high and loud and lipsticked. And then I listened to the door to the girls’ room banging shut again, their footsteps receding down the white-floored corridors as they went back to wherever they had come from.

After the first few weeks, one of the school teachers took pity on me, and introduced me to a couple of girls in my class.

‘Go and sit with them at lunchtime,’ he said, with a look on his face that was half-pity and half-exasperation. He was small and balding and chipper. ‘They’re nice girls. They’ll look after you.’

Such well-meaning, misguided intentions! I looked at the two girls and they looked back at me. I could see they were as horrified at the prospect of me spending lunchtime with them as I was. And yet we all did what he said. They took me back to their lunchtime bench, and I sat with them and their friends — that day and the day after and the day after that. For months, in fact, I ate my sandwich with them silently; I sat with them silently; I watched them silently; I listened to them silently. They took to ignoring me, in the end. They went on with their lives — their parties and their gossip and their drinking and their shopping and their boyfriends — while I sat mute beside them, in what seems to me now almost a parody of introversion.

I have often thought back to that year in high school. I’ve thought about how, at night, I lay in the darkness of my bedroom, the one with the wallpaper with pretty sprigs of flowers dotted over it, and longed for popularity and friendship, for someone my own age to count on. I’ve thought about how I believed that I must be faulty in some way — weak, or cowardly, or defective — because I couldn’t do what other people my own age did instinctively: talk. Make connections. Relax. Laugh.

So it astonishes me now, to look back and see a different possibility, a different narrative, from the one I’ve just told. I don’t believe that friends are ‘overrated’, to use Wallach’s word. Still, I wonder: what if I had learned to trust myself during that year? What if I had learned that I was my own friend? What if I had allowed myself to like the world in my head at least as much as the real one? More broadly, what if we could teach all young people to count on themselves in this way? What, then?

I am not sure. But I think it’s important to listen to alternative narratives like the one in the words above: to retell our life-stories to ourselves, to seek out new plots, new endings. I think it’s important to trust your own inner world: to learn to turn to it in times of need, or in times of loneliness. Introversion, in this context, is irrelevant. What’s relevant is resilience. Resilience is all that matters.

Resilience, you will note, is not a negative word.

How (not) to surf

28/07/2016 § 2 Comments

Other people’s words about … surfing

He tried to show me the basics [of surfing], but he made it look too simple. Surfing was in his muscle memory, in his blood, in his thoughts. It was like his shadow, simply part of him …

We got back into the water one more time, and the sea tugged me under and tossed me around under a wave, like a plaything, like it was laughing at me. I came up ready to go home, mouth full of salt, hair full of sand.

from Season of Salt & Honey
by Hannah Tunnicliffe
( p. 134)

My partner is a surfer. In his fifties now, he started surfing in his teens, catching a ride to the south coast with an older friend who had a driver’s license.

Though I love the sea, I have a fear of waves, of getting dumped. Still, when the two of us first met (nearly twenty years ago now), I wanted to give surfing a go. I wanted to see what made him love it so.

So he took me out into the salt water at Yorke Peninsula, he on his surfboard and I on my boogie board, paddling hard. He set me up for a couple of waves. Each time, when the wave rolled towards me, he said, ‘Now!’ and then, when I froze, he gave my board a push, and away I went. I rode the wave towards shore, lying flat on my belly on the board as he’d shown me, and it was fast and terrifying and exhilarating all at once.

And I got it. I got what he felt out there in the ocean. I got the magic of it. The awe.

Yorke Peninsula waves

Yorke Peninsula waves

But I’ve never attempted it again. I can’t read the waves or the currents. I’m afraid of getting caught in a rip. I don’t understand the sea. I love it; I’m awed by it; but I don’t know it.

She gives me that sad, hopeful look that says [surfing] can be for everyone, should be for everyone. That surfing is the best thing in the world. Her strange, blue-grey eyes fix on me, like she wants to explain. I imagine her in the sea, like a fish, moving as though made for the water. She would know where to put her feet, how to balance, how to fall without hurting herself, without drowning. She’s probably one of those girls who rides the waves as though she’s dancing with the whole of the ocean; her and the water taking different roles, moving in different ways. The ocean leads and she simply responds.

(p. 134)

I think, for me, the sea will always remain a beautiful, mysterious, unknown quantity. There are different ways of loving it, perhaps. Mine isn’t the way of the surfer, but it’s still there. It will always be there. I have lived by the sea for twenty years or more now, and the sand and the salt and the sea are in my blood.

And that is enough for me.

Storm approaching, Yorke Peninsula

Storm approaching, Yorke Peninsula