Snatched phrases (on fragility)

December 8, 2016 § Leave a comment

‘She feels as though she’s made of nothing but paper:
infinitely tearable.’

From ‘Instructions for a Heatwave
by Maggie O’Farrell

Nothing but paper

Nothing but paper

First person

December 1, 2016 § 3 Comments

Other people’s words about … writing

Back in my room, I put down my bags, undressed, wrapped myself in blankets, put on Christmas music, and watched the snow fall outside my window, a picture-perfect postcard winter scene, wide lawns of white, thin black arms of trees holding up the white sky. I thought of writing. But what would I have said? I’d long since stopped writing, real writing, my own writing. No words ever came anymore. I’d lost the sense of first-person, the sense of being in the world that writing requires. I guess I had nothing to say for myself. I turned my face into the pillow and slept.

from ‘Wasted’
by Marya Hornbacher

It is a strange thing, but the words above — which form part of Hornbacher’s memoir about anorexia — speak to me as much about writing as they do about starving.

(Let me pause here to say, in passing, that Hornbacher writes about anorexia better than anyone else I have ever read. She writes with a vividness and intensity that is rare and moving and unforgettable. At the time she is describing in the passage above, she was at her lowest weight, close to death. She could not work, or eat, or read, or sleep. Of course she could not write.)


I don’t know if you could call what Hornbacher is describing here ‘writer’s block’, although certainly she is describing an inability to write. I don’t even know if writer’s block exists. I do know that, like many writers, I have experienced times when I have been unable to write anything I deemed meaningful or worthwhile. For me, like Hornbacher, that feeling is powerfully tied up with a sense of despair, of loss. The despair comes first, and then the inability to write — not the other way around.

We like to tell ourselves that there is a link between depression and genius, between suffering and artistic ability. (Mozart, anyone? Van Gogh? Plath?) But most writers who have been through a period of depression will tell you that they write despite their depression, not because of it; and that they write their best material after a period of depression, not during it. Even those writers who choose to write specifically about their depression — like William Styron in ‘Darkness Visible‘, and Andrew Solomon in his particularly fine book ‘The Noonday Demon‘ — do so after the fact.

Is despair a different thing from depression? In the clinical sense, I guess, it is. Whatever its cause or pathology, it can certainly affect a writer’s ability to write. It can certainly keep her quiet. I’d lost the sense of first-person, Hornbacher says, of her own encounter with illness and despair: the sense of being in the world that writing requires. And that is how it feels.

The corollary of this, for me at least, is that when I write — when I can, when I do — it comes from a good place. Because here’s the thing: to have a sense of being in the world is to have a sense of belonging, of groundedness, of being alive. It is to have a sense of joy.


I will leave it to Matt Haig, another writer who has chosen depression as the theme of one of his books, to close this post:

I want life. I want to read it and write it and feel it and live it. I want, for as much of the time as possible in this blink-of-an-eye existence we have, to feel all that can be felt.

from ‘Reasons to Stay Alive
by Matt Haig

Those are words that can keep you alive, if you let them, though they will not keep you quiet. I want. I want. I want.

Quietness, anyway, in my opinion, is overrated.

The list maker

November 24, 2016 § 1 Comment

Other people’s words about … wildflowers

It was the top of the morning, the very cream, and I skimmed it off and crouched in the cornfield, gulping it down … The field ended in a double ditch, and from it grew a mass of flowers in a profusion of colours and forms, such as is seen trimming the edges of medieval manuscripts. Black medick, I counted, buttercup, horsetail, ribwort plantain, hedge woundwort, must mallow and curled dock, the clustered seeds a rusty brown. Wild rose, dandelion, the red and white dead nettle, blackberry, smooth hawksbeard and purple-crowned knapweed. Interspersed with these were smaller, more delicate flowers: cut-leaved cranesbill, birdsfoot trefoil, slender speedwell, St John’s wort, heath bedstraw, tufted vetch and, weaving in and out of the rest, field bindweed, its flowers striped cups of sherbet-pink and white. The stem of the knapweed was covered in black fly, and a spider trap shaped like a dodecahedron had annexed a few pale purple flowers of vetch inside swathes of tight-woven web.

from ‘To the River
by Olivia Laing

I have quoted from Olivia Laing before, I know. Still, one day a week or so ago as I wandered through the scrub, I couldn’t help thinking again of To the River. In particular, my thoughts kept returning to the passage I’ve quoted above. We’ve had an extraordinarily wet, windy spring here in South Australia this year — a spring that’s left me craving our usual harsh, dry, crackling heat. But the ‘up’ side to the lower temperatures and higher rainfall has been the abundance of wildflowers.

That day, as I strolled along the path in the scrub, it felt to me as though I was walking on a carpet of flowers. Whistlers burbled in the trees above me — I spied both golden whistlers and rufous whistlers — and wattlebirds clucked, and magpies warbled, and I am sure I heard the call of a curlew or a godwit, though I really don’t know whether that’s possible in my part of the world, or — if it is — whether a curlew or a godwit would frequent the scrub-side of the dunes.

Meanwhile, the rug of flowers went on spreading out before me.

As I walked, I found myself doing exactly what Laing does in the passage above: counting the flowers. I saw each flower; I named it; I knew it. I made my list as Laing made hers, and though we live in different hemispheres, and our lists are very different, I suspect that the joy I felt in making my list was somewhat akin to hers.

If I was an artist or a calligrapher — if I was a mediaeval scribe — I would decorate the edges of this post with the flowers I saw that day, in reference to the illuminated manuscripts Laing mentions above. But I am none of those things, so my photos will have to suffice. (As usual, hover your cursor over the photos to see the name of each flower — or my attempt, at least, to identify and name each one. Part of the pleasure in list-making is the knowledge that some of the names on the list might be wrong. I learn as I go.)

Perhaps you might like to think of these photos as a kind of pictorial version of the list I made that day, or as evidence of the carpeted path I trod, or as a simple expression of my joy.

They’re all of those things to me.

A shock of pleasure

November 17, 2016 § 2 Comments

Other people’s words about … the sea

The narrow trail I had been following came to an end as it rose to meet the old grey asphalt road that runs up to the missile guidance station. Stepping from path to road means stepping up to see the whole expanse of the ocean, spreading uninterrupted to Japan. The same shock of pleasure comes every time I cross this boundary to discover the ocean again, an ocean shining like beaten silver on the brightest days, green on the overcast ones, brown with the muddy runoff of the streams and rivers washing far out to sea during winter floods, an opalescent mottling of blues on days of scattered clouds, only invisible on the foggiest of days, when the salt smell alone announces the change. This day the sea was a solid blue running toward an indistinct horizon where white mist blurred the transition to cloudless sky.

from ‘Wanderlust
by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit’s words remind me of my own jaunts to and from the sea. So, no more words from me today — just a gallery of pictures I’ve taken over my own years of oceanside ramblings. You’ll recognise many of these pictures from earlier posts, no doubt, but collected here they convey, I hope, the many moods of the sea.

(Hover over the pictures to see their connection to the words above.)









Where song begins

November 10, 2016 § 3 Comments

Other people’s words about … birdcalls

A bird calls with a sound like a pot being scraped,
and the moist air is cool on our skin.

from ‘The Collaborator
by Margaret Leroy

I love the way that worlds sometimes collide in the space of a few words. What kind of bird is Margaret Leroy describing here? I’m not sure: the characters in her book live on the Channel Islands during the Occupation in World War II — which is a long way from Australia.

And yet when I read her phrase, I thought instantly of our native red wattlebirds.

Wattlebirds (from a photo of a sheet of Earth Greetings wrapping paper:

(from a photo of a sheet of Earth Greetings wrapping paper:

Australian birds are known for their startlingly loud calls. In fact, biologist Tim Low has devoted a whole book to this theme. In Where Song Began, he proposes that Australian plants produce such an abundance of nectar that some birds — honeyeaters in particular, including wattlebirds — have evolved with strong aggressive tendencies, which enable them to fight over and defend their sources of nectar. Their loud, harsh calls are a part of that aggression. (You can find a brief summary of this argument here.)

I have struggled for years to come up with words to describe the calls that red wattlebirds make, here on my blog and elsewhere. They are a mixture of chuckles, coughs, clicks, screeches, rattles, squawks and whistles: you can hear a sample on the website Birds in Backyards, which provides a link to a recording on this factsheet. (Click on ‘Top 40 Bird Songs’ at the top of the factsheet, and then click on the ‘Soundfile’ for the red wattlebird, which is the fourteenth bird on the list. But turn your volume up first. Wattlebirds are very noisy.)

Wattlebird on a wire

Wattlebird on a wire

The recording misses something, though, as do my words. Neither effort really conveys the sound of the wattlebird’s call accurately: somehow, Margaret Leroy’s words come closer.

Serendipity, perhaps? Now, whenever I hear a wattlebird call, I will think of these words.


Snatched phrases (on rain)

November 3, 2016 § 1 Comment

He put his hand out. One drop of water and then another.
Spitting, his [dad] called this kind of rain.
Not enough to fill the creeks, but enough to make the ferns droop and the ground smell like wet dog.

From ‘Sing Fox to Me
by Sarah Kanake

One drop of rain and then another

One drop of rain
and then another

I’ve recently added a new page, entitled List of Tales, where you’ll find a list of all the works I’ve quoted on this blog over the years. I’ll keep this list updated from now on. I hope you find it useful.

What I wanted

October 29, 2016 § 5 Comments

Other people’s words about … the fear of flying
View of Perth and the Swan River from Kings Park Sunday 23 October 2016

View of Perth and the Swan River from Kings Park
Sunday 23 October 2016

Recently, I spent a weekend in Perth, Western Australia, celebrating a friend’s fiftieth birthday.

Read that sentence again. It doesn’t sound like much, does it? I hopped onto a plane in Adelaide on Friday afternoon, and arrived in Perth two hours later; I rented a small, sunlit apartment in West Perth for two nights; and then late on Sunday afternoon, I hopped onto another plane and flew back to Adelaide. This is the kind of thing people do all the time, if they can afford to. It’s what people call a ‘holiday’, a ‘break’.

And this trip was both of those things, and for me, that seems a little like a miracle.

The wildflowers in Kings Park are glorious

Wildflowers in Kings Park
Sunday 23 October 2016

In my twenties, I spent over two years travelling and living overseas: waitressing in London, volunteering on an archaeology dig in Texas, working in a factory and then an ice cream shop in Germany, and, in my last year, teaching English in Cairo and Jakarta. I was a well-seasoned traveller by any standards. By that age, I had had emetophobia — a fear of nausea and vomiting, which I have mentioned in passing on this blog before (here, for example) — for over fifteen years. It caused the odd anxiety attack (the kind I’ve referred to here and here), but nothing else. It certainly didn’t stop me from my travels.

But then, in my late thirties, something happened. Something — some edifice of bravery or stability or spontaneity inside of me — crumbled. For some reason, I began to feel queasy and nauseated more often, and so, because of the emetophobia, I began to feel anxious more often. The sickness and the anxiety always accompanied each other: sometimes it was hard to tell which came first. (This is the emetophobe’s eternal dilemma: Do I feel anxious because I am nauseous? Or do I feel I nauseous because I am anxious?)

My illness and anxiety seemed to be magnified when I travelled. They became even worse if I was travelling in the company of people I loved, people I really wanted to travel with. Despite the occasional bout of nausea and stomach upset during camping trips, I continued going camping (truly, thank goodness for my beloved Yorke Peninsula!), but, in the end, I stopped all other forms of holiday travel. I booked rash, non-refundable trips to visit my dearest friends who live interstate — Perth, New South Wales — and then cancelled my bookings, losing all the money I’d spent in the process. I planned holidays in Portugal and New York, with family, with friends, with my partner, and then I cancelled those trips, too. I wanted to go on those trips, but I felt that I couldn’t.

In the end, I stopped going on holidays anywhere beyond the state borders of South Australia.

I just stopped.

Kings Park: more wildflowers

Kings Park: more wildflowers

Fear of holidays is a very strange fear to have. Adelaide author Elisa Black is one of the few people who understand it:

The anxiety during this trip was so intense that it is almost too much to remember, no matter how hard I try. I know I thought I was going crazy. I know I was exhausted …

Constant dread, that is what I felt … What I wanted was to not feel this way, to be normal, but if that wasn’t possible then I wanted to crawl into a hole where I could be safe, where everything could be controlled …

from ‘The Anxiety Book
by Elisa Black

Those phrases: constant dread, and I wanted to crawl into a hole where I could be safe. They say it all. For me, they speak to a form of social anxiety. For many years, I have been ashamed of my phobia. What is there to fear about vomiting? And so, when I get nauseous, and the nausea triggers my anxiety, I am also flooded with feelings of shame. I try to act ‘normally’ during the course of an attack of nausea, but my terror and my shame impair my performance. (Note that word, with all its implications: ‘performance’.)

What I long for when I am nauseous is to be alone. I long for some kind of sanctuary.

Kings Park: A spot of shade

Kings Park: A spot of shade

Fear of holidays and travel is one thing. But then, too, there’s the fear of flying.

Winter in Adelaide this year has been very stormy. We have had one of the rainiest winters ever recorded; we have had statewide power cuts; we have had floods. It is spring now, and yet winter still hovers and menaces. The night before I left for Perth, there was another storm, and when I went to walk my dog the following morning, I saw that branches from the pine trees that line the esplanade by the beach had come down, barring our path over the dunes.

It did not seem a very auspicious day for flying. All that wind! All that turbulence! I wondered — I truly wondered — if I could get on the plane and fly to Perth as I’d promised.

Wildflowers in Kings Park Saturday 22 October 2016

Wildflowers in Kings Park
Saturday 22 October 2016

Oddly, I am not actually afraid of the act of flying itself: unlike many anxious fliers, I don’t fear plane crashes or hijacking. I once knew a woman who feared flying because she had a fear of sharks, but I don’t share this particular terror. My fear is, I think, more like a form of claustrophobia: it is a fear of becoming nauseated and thus anxious whilst I am trapped inside a machine, way up in the air, with no escape. I am not very good at staying still when I am anxious about being sick. I do not lie down, as most people do when they feel unwell: I go outside; I pace; I tremble; I sob melodramatically; I run away. I do not like to be witnessed or contained. An aeroplane is, unfortunately, the perfect vessel of witness and containment.

Scott Stossel shares my fear:

For instance, the fear of vomiting … makes me afraid of travel because I’m afraid I’ll vomit far from home. It makes me afraid of flying not for the conventional reason that I’m afraid that the plane will crash, although I also have that, but I’m afraid I’ll get motion sick and get nauseous … The horrible kind of self-fulfilling vicious cycle of emetophobia is that if you’re prone to acute anxiety and nervousness, as I am, it often manifests itself with stomach symptoms.

from an interview on NPR with Scott Stossel
author of ‘My Age of Anxiety
6 January 2014

At first glance, today’s post might seem to be all about fear. Yet here I am, back from a wonderful weekend in Perth, despite all my fears.

So what I am writing about today is, in fact, celebration. Forgive me if it seems solipsistic, but this is about me breaking a pattern. It’s about me, stepping onto a plane; me, flying; me, not getting ill while I was on holiday as I’d feared (though I did get anxious). It’s about me being able to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time. It is about some part of me being restored after all these years: rebuilt. Not recovered, exactly: I am still emetophobic; I still have a funny tummy; I am still anxious; I still find recovery, from both illness and anxiety, a problematic concept.

Most of all, what I am writing about today is hope.

Morning cuppa on the balcony: my own little sanctuary

Morning cuppa on the balcony: my own little sanctuary

By the way, if you should ever choose to holiday in Perth, you must visit Kings Park, where most of the photos on today’s post were taken. It is a beautiful place: a kind of sanctuary, if you like. Take a picnic there with you, or a book; go for a wander with friends.

Enjoy your time there. Celebrate it. Allow yourself to feel restored.

Picnic spot in Kings Park (Statue of woman with child, Peppermint Lawn) Saturday 22 October 2016

Picnic spot in Kings Park
(Statue of woman with child, Peppermint Lawn)
Saturday 22 October 2016

And, wherever you are today, whatever you are doing right now, breathe. Smile. Wonder.


This photo is for my mother, and for the future holidays I hope to have with her

This photo is for my mother,
and for the future holidays I hope to have with her

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