November 18, 2017 § 2 Comments
‘His sleep is so light it’s some smallness of sleep,
some rumour of sleep.’
From ‘Fourth of July Creek’
by Smith Henderson
You know the kind of night Henderson describes above? We all do, right? Nights like that can leave you feeling very fragile.
I don’t have any solutions, except to remember that sometimes the only thing you can do when you’re feeling fragile yourself is to seek solace in the fragile things all about you:
November 12, 2017 § 3 Comments
How we see ourselves
Stella had noticed that the woman in [the painting] ‘The Jewish Bride’ wore pearls. Also earrings. Maybe that was why she looked so intimately self-assured. Stella hadn’t had her ears pierced until her sixtieth birthday. She’d been squeamish about it but thought the pain would be balanced by the confidence the look would give her. She would become — finally — a woman taking her own decisions, a woman with authority over herself.
From ‘Midwinter Break’
by Bernard MacLaverty
The year I turned fifteen, I grew up, physically. That was the year that I turned from a slightly plump, almost-flaxen-haired girl into an adolescent woman with breasts and hips and thighs and lank, dirty-blonde hair. I wasn’t the kind of girl to celebrate any of these things: in fact, I wanted to turn back the clock. I didn’t want breasts and hips and thighs and lank, dirty-blonde hair. I wanted something else. I wanted to look the way I thought I had once looked, but I knew that I couldn’t. Not any more.
The strange thing is that the way I’d thought I had once looked as a child wasn’t the way I had actually looked as a child. I’d thought — all my life I’d thought this — that I had been skinny and elfin and girlish. In fact, I hadn’t been that at all, ever. But it wasn’t until my mid- to late teens that I understood this.
When I did, I was deeply shocked.
Somewhere around the time of that realisation, and for a long time afterwards, I stopped eating enough. I’ve touched on this act of mine — of abstinence — before. In the early years, it was a conscious, deliberate act: an effort to force my body to a level of thinness that I thought had once been my natural state. Later, it became both a less strict and a less conscious act; indeed, it became more of a process than an act. I think that what I was trying to do, all those years, was to make abstinence a part of who I was, rather than all that I did.
It took a long to stop doing this, and even longer to stop trying to do it. In fact, it wasn’t until my mid-thirties that I really allowed myself to eat without any kind of enforced abstinence at all, though by then the things I abstained from were barely noticeable to anyone other than myself. Still, if such a thing as recovery from an eating disorder exists, that’s when it happened for me — halfway though my thirties. Not before.
But though I did eventually lose the compulsion to abstain, to this day I have still not lost the shock I feel when I am confronted with the real image of myself — in photos, in the mirror — as opposed to the image of myself that I carry around in my mind. I still think of myself, unconsciously, erroneously, as skinny and elfin and girlish. As light and slender and ethereal. As pretty. I am not any of these things, and I never have been; but that’s not how I feel.
I think we all live with a certain level of disconnect between the way we perceive ourselves and the way we actually are. You know that feeling you get when you turn forty (or fifty, or sixty, or seventy) and you think, ‘But I don’t feel like I’m forty (or fifty, or sixty, or seventy); I feel like I’m still twenty-five’? That’s the disconnect I mean, right there. I am not sure that everyone experiences it as strongly as I do: for me, it seems to run through my entire perception of myself. I’ve always had it, and always will; adolescence was just the first time that I was confronted with it. Even now, each time I am confronted once again with my misperception of myself — with the difference between the ‘me’ that people interact with and the ‘me’ that lives inside of me — I feel the same shock anew.
I like to think that this sense of disconnect between perception and reality is what Bernard MacLaverty is touching on, very lightly, very deftly, in the passage I’ve quoted above. Sixty-year-old Stella tells herself that getting her ears pierced will give her confidence; she genuinely believes that her new look will enable her to become a woman with authority over herself. But the earrings do not bring about the sense of intimate self-assurance that she seeks. Of course they don’t. Stella never becomes — finally — the woman she seeks to be: the woman she believes she is capable of being; the woman, I think, she secretly believes she might already be.
Perhaps here I’m reading too much into MacLaverty’s words. If nothing else, there is an affectionate sadness in his words to which I respond. Still, on those days when I feel deeply disconnected from my two selves, from the interacting ‘me’ and the internal ‘me’, I find solace in passages like his. I like to think that — like Stella, like me — you, too, are puzzled by the rift between your internal you and your external you. I like to think that you, too, feel as though there is a different — a better, a lovelier, a lonelier — you inside of you than anyone ever sees.
I like to think this, because thinking it lessens somehow the sense of disconnect I have between your experience and mine: between your world and mine. That, at least, is a point of connection. And a connection is the opposite of a rift, after all: it is a kind of affinity.
November 8, 2017 § 5 Comments
Other people’s words about … writing a journal
She put the card carefully on her knee under the journal, which she opened at the middle to a sprawl of furious and barely legible writing. There were circles and boxes and in some places the pen had been pressed so hard against the paper that it had torn. Clare snapped the journal shut and for the second time in as many days she put her head in her hands and cried.
There wasn’t, she thought, a single page in all the [boxes of journals] that was worth keeping. For twenty-seven years she had written the same things over and over.
from ‘Closing Down’
by Sally Abbott
Like the character Clare in the passage above, I was an avid journal writer for many years — from the age of about twelve years old, in fact. I began writing a journal because my Year 7 English teacher made the activity a part of our curriculum for the year: she gave us ten minutes at the beginning of each class to write in our journals. She saw journal writing as a way of encouraging us to learn to write fluently, spell correctly, express ourselves clearly and perhaps — as a corollary of the writing — to read widely.
Like Clare, I still have all my old journals, stored away in a plastic crate in the house at Aldinga. Those old childhood ones are filled with pages of neat handwriting in blue fountain-pen ink, drawings, doodles, comic strips I cut out from the newspaper and pasted in, pictures from old magazines, stickers, and notes other people wrote to me (on the odd occasion when I allowed someone access to my journal). They are bright and colourful and their tone is, mostly, chatty and cheerful.
But the later journals, which were written during my move from childhood to adolescence through to early adulthood and beyond, are filled with more handwriting and less colour. The writing takes over. It fills the pages. There is page after page after page of it.
It was a grief counsellor who had recommended Clare start keeping a journal … It was a way of beginning to articulate her feelings, the woman had explained, and Clare remembered her sad, earnest face and the huge weight she gave to the word ‘feelings’, as if they were something Clare could take out of herself and put on a table and carefully untangle and separate and tidy up. And perhaps, for a little while, it had helped. But what had she been thinking … to write over and over and over that she was sad or angry or okay? I only wrote what I felt, she thought. I never wrote what I saw. I never wrote what I did. I never wrote that I’ve made it this far.
In my early adulthood, like Clare, I was encouraged by various health professionals to continue keeping a journal as a part of my therapy; indeed, I was told I could see journal writing as a kind of therapy in itself.
And it was, I guess. For many years, it was.
Or at least I thought it was. I only wrote what I felt, Abbott’s character Clare realises in the passage above (my emphasis): I never wrote what I saw. These are wise words. There came a time, in my own journal writing, when I looked back over all those handwritten pages and was dismayed to see that what I had thought of as a process of therapy and healing was more like a process of emotional purging, repeated over and over and over again.
Reading (or rather, trying to read) those passages felt oppressive, overwhelming. Why did I always have the same feelings? Why did I always write about those feelings? Why didn’t writing change the feelings? Why couldn’t I find a cure?
I’ve talked before about my scepticism when it comes to dubious concepts like recovery and healing and cure. That’s part of my theme today (again), but what interests me more here is the way Abbott, using the character Clare, focuses on another dubious concept: the huge weight we place these days on our feelings, and therefore on our need to untangle them and tidy them up.
Meditators often talk about the practice of watching their thoughts and feelings arise and then letting them pass by without becoming ‘attached’ to them. Though, intellectually, I’ve understood the reasoning behind this for years, it wasn’t until I saw it expressed through Clare’s character that I actually got it.
Feelings are repetitive, yes: I hadn’t been wrong about that, in re-reading my journals. What I had been wrong about was letting this bother me. And measuring myself by it.
I never wrote that I’ve made it this far. Here, Clare realises that feelings, as measuring-tools of ourselves and of our worth, will always fail. They do not mark where we are in our lives. They do not necessarily affect what we see, what we do, where we go. (Or they don’t have to, anyway.) In this sense they are, ultimately, irrelevant. Our feelings accompany us on our passage through life, but they don’t determine the actual passage itself.
And they don’t have to be cured.
Interestingly, given the recurrent out & about theme of some of my posts on this blog, the character Clare in Abbott’s book is a great walker. She walks at night when she can’t sleep: she walks, and walks, and walks. And, in contrast to when she’s writing her journal, when she walks, she sees. When she sees, she learns. Her feelings, as she walks, are a backdrop. They are not the main event.
As for me? I took the pictures in today’s post on one of my recent walks through the Scrub, a day in late October when the Scrub was filled with flowers that were purple and blue and pink and white. I was feeling fairly gloomy at the time of that walk — unwell; stressed about being unwell; stressed about my jobs; stressed about feeling stressed about all of these things — but the pictures don’t convey that stress.
And that is as it should be. The feelings were a backdrop to the walk. What I saw was real and lasting. That’s what matters.
November 2, 2017 § 1 Comment
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.
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.
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.
October 27, 2017 § 2 Comments
Other people’s words about … fatigue
My legs, when I got up to go to the toilet or kitchen, felt light and shaky, far away from the rest of me …
Even speaking was too much. My words seemed pinned to the bottom of my jaw, and came out compressed and monosyllabic. I don’t remember crying much, but there was a dampness, as if moisture were constantly seeping through my skin, and sinking. As if everything inside me had become viscous, liquid, beholden to gravity and I was draining always to the lowest point; the soles of my feet, my buttocks, my back.
by Kate Cole-Adams
The year I turned forty, I caught glandular fever (known by my North American readers as mononucleosis). It was a pretty typical case, I think: for the next year or so, I caught colds and viruses and coughs at the drop of a hat, and meanwhile I experienced a tiredness that — like the tiredness Kate Cole-Adams describes in the passage above, in a depiction of her own experience of adult-onset glandular fever — was beyond any kind of tiredness I had ever experienced before. It wasn’t tiredness at all, really: it was lethargy, lassitude, limpness, listlessness, languor — all those ‘L’ words, combined with a clammy, vaguely feverish kind of exhaustion. My limbs felt heavy and my head felt swirly and the floor seemed spongy beneath my feet.
Though the fatigue and exhaustion eventually, two or so years down the track, dissipated, I have found that even now, years later, I still get the occasional, sudden bout of glandular-fever-type fatigue. It always happens when I’m least expecting it and lasts for a few days, sometimes a week or more. If I think about it deeply enough, I am usually able to explain it by pointing to a higher than normal level of stress in my life.
I had one of those bouts again just recently. I’d come down to our house at Aldinga feeling tired and sleep-deprived after having been rostered on for a variety of different shifts in the space of a few days at my call-centre job. I had thought that I’d got through those shifts just fine, but as it turned out, I hadn’t, not quite.
So I spent the next few days at Aldinga sapped of energy and appetite: too tired to walk on the beach or catch up with family and friends as I’d planned; too tired, even, to write or to bake. Instead, I lay on the sofa in our sunny living room, and read, and dozed, and waited for the fatigue to pass. I knew that it would. I just didn’t know when. (Actually, I still don’t know. As I write this post, a couple of weeks down the track, I’m still experiencing fatigue and unwellness. But it will pass, as all things do.)
The first day that I felt even vaguely up to it, I went for a wander in the Scrub. I was still very tired, and so I took the walk slowly, following the path marked out by signposts for tourists, which takes you on a small loop through the Scrub: first south, parallel with the coast, then east towards the hills, then back northwards and west to the starting point. (Its official name is the Coral Lichen Circuit, and you can find more out about it here.)
It was late spring in the scrub: whistlers burbled (mostly) unseen in the branches. The yellow months had passed, and now it was the time for blues and purples and pinks and whites. And everywhere that I walked there were twining fringe lilies growing. As the photos in this post illustrate, I found them peeking through the leaves and branches and stalks and branches of sea box bushes, and rock ferns, and mallee pea-bushes, and muntries, and sheoaks, and grass trees, just to name a few.
They are common native flowers in South Australia, I gather — neither delicate nor rare. And yet each time I saw one on my walk that day, I felt a little thrust of joy at their very ubiquity. It was partly to do with the fact that I’ve learnt enough now, in all my wanders through the Scrub, to be able to identify them; partly to do with the fact that I’d reached a point in the ebb and flow of my own exhaustion where I felt I had enough stamina to go on another of those wanders, however gentle that wander was; and partly, simply, to do with the lovely prettiness of the lilies themselves.
Perhaps the fringe lilies were a symbol for me that day, growing and twining — despite their appearance of delicate fragility — in amongst all the other greenery. Thriving, despite everything.
Or perhaps symbols are unnecessary here. Perhaps it was enough just to see them and enjoy them exactly for what they were.
I recently found a wonderful resource for anyone who is interested in learning more about the Aldinga Scrub. It is the Flickr account of the Friends of the Aldinga Scrub, which has hundreds of wonderful photos taken in the Scrub, not only capturing but also identifying the native flora, fauna and fungi (and doing a much better job of this than I can ever hope to do, though I try). Check it out here.
October 22, 2017 § 2 Comments
Other people’s words about … coffee shops
Gerry sat down in an empty seat by the window and Stella went to the counter. Coffee places were so noisy. This one sounded like they were making the ‘Titanic’ rather than cups of coffee — the grinder going at maximum volume, screaming on and on — making enough coffee grounds for the whole of Europe while another guy was shooting steam through milk with supersonic hissing. A girl unpacked a dishwasher, clacking plates and saucers into piles. A third barista was banging the metal coffee-holder against the rim of the stainless steel bar to empty it — but doing it with such venom and volume that Gerry jumped at every strike. Talking was impossible. It was so bad he couldn’t even hear if there was muzak or not. And still the grinder went on and on trying to reduce a vessel of brown-black beans to dust. Stella had to yell her order.
Gerry looked out on to the square. Pigeons pecked and waddled after crumbs in between the green café tables and chairs. Stella eventually came to the table.
‘In the coffee shops of heaven they will not grind coffee beans,’ she said. ‘But coffee will be available.’
from ‘Midwinter Break’
by Bernard MacLaverty
Do you know the kind of coffee shop Bernard MacLaverty describes in the passage above? I do. I had to smile when I read his words.
I took the picture below on my birthday a couple of months ago, after I’d taken myself off for a bike ride to my favourite bakery in Aldinga, a place somewhat unlike the one in the description above. I sat down on one of the stools on the verandah and sipped at a cup of tea. It was a dull, cold, end-of-winter day, but the coffee beans ground away quietly in the background, and the customers’ laughter was genuine, and the tea was (weak, but) hot.
So when I read MacLaverty’s words, I found myself thinking that in the coffee shops of my heaven …
In my heaven, there will be tea shops, not coffee shops. They will sell loaves of sourdough, and slices of homemade everyday cake, and pots of tea made with malty assam tea leaves, left to brew so long that the tea turns toffee-brown.
And the baristas will pour the milk into my cup before they pour in the tea.
And fresh pots of tea will always be available.
And I’ll be able to drink cup after endless cup, because caffeine won’t have any effect on me …
October 16, 2017 § 1 Comment
‘The air was sweet and clear: it went in like good wine.’
From ‘The Essex Serpent’
by Sarah Perry
I’m kind of obsessed with fresh air at the moment, for reasons I’ve mentioned before.
So here, without more ado …
… are some photos from a recent weekend down at our beach shack in Aldinga …
… as I wandered out and about …
… breathing in, like the animals all about me …
… the sweet and clean air.