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


April 16, 2017 § 3 Comments

Other people’s words about … sweat

‘Swagger’ might be common jargon now, but let’s not confuse the situation. Swagger is earned. It can be grimy or graceful. It can be innate, but it’s also finessed. It’s the feeling that makes you sit a little taller and reinforces your backbone. We sweat with swagger when we infuse a shameless confidence into movement. To sweat with swagger is to redefine what it means to be an athlete and create unapologetic greatness along the way. When we sweat with swagger, we test the limits of human potential. When our footsteps are powered by motivation and a strong community, the cadence is a drumbeat to doing something epic. Sweat is magic. Swagger is the glisten.

from ‘Shut up and Run
by Robyn Arzón

First, a story of my own, before I address the words I’ve quoted above.

The day before Easter, I woke with my stomach roiling. It was my first official day off work for a while, and when I pulled the curtains back from the window above my bed, I saw clear skies and sunshine through the glass. Lying there in bed, a little before seven o’clock, I felt every part of me rebel at the thought of languishing the day away inside, sprawled out on the sofa, feeling ill.

And so I got up, and I pulled on my oldest pair of trousers — the pair with the faint bike-chain stain on the left leg. I threw my camera and some spare coins into my backpack, and I got on my bike and rode away from the house.

The moment I started cycling, I could feel something inside of me begin to unfurl. I am a tense person, and mostly this tension is a mental thing, but it manifests itself in me physically, too: in my muscles. This is something I have only just begun to realise. I had been sore for days before this bike ride, my right hip aching from stooping over the computer in the office, the muscles in the hollow of my back raw from constantly bracing myself (against what? staying still?), my stomach queasy and unsettled.

So I pedalled slowly. Gently.

The route took me south-west — first along the coast, past the two jetties closest to my home; then south-east a little way,  where the coastal road came to a dead end. Then, when the coastal road started back up again, I turned back west and cycled alongside the sea once more, past the third jetty. I rode with my head up, glancing about me: at the wide, cloudless sky, and the opal-coloured sea, and the faint line dividing the two of them. Lycra-clad cyclists sped by me in a whoosh of tyres and sweat — mostly men, some women; most of them younger than me, but some older — and I said, ‘G’day’ to each one of them and gave them a little smile of greeting and acknowledgment, though I’m not sure that any of them heard me or noticed.

When I got to the fourth jetty south of home (the one pictured in most of the photos in today’s post) I stopped and parked my bike. I wandered across the main road to the supermarket and bought some dried-fruit-and-nut mix, and then I dropped into my favourite café at that particular beach and ordered a take-away cup of tea. They’ve recently started selling tea made from leaf tea instead of teabags there, even for take-away drinks, which is a little thing, I know, but it makes me very happy. I carried my lidded red cardboard cup of too-milky leaf tea back across the road and plopped myself down in the middle of the foreshore square. And there I sat, cross-legged on the sun-warmed grass, nibbling my fruit and nuts, sipping my tea, looking (and looking) at the sea.

In a few weeks’ time, the grass in that foreshore square will be wet with rain, and a cold wind will whip between the lamp-posts up over the grey roof of the pavilion. I contemplated this a while, stretching my arms out behind me, resting my weight back, feeling the blades of grass tickle my palms. The beach was only a few steps away from where I sat on the grass, and I could see the jetty pylons reflected in the water, and I’ve said it once already in this post, but little things like that — they make me very happy indeed.

So what has this to do with the words I quoted at the beginning of this post? There was a bit of sweat involved in my bike ride, sure, but there was no swagger. I cannot say I moved with shameless confidence or unapologetic greatness. I was motivated, certainly, but I did nothing epic or magic. I am certain I did not glisten.

Thank goodness.

I do not wish this post to be unkind. I do not wish to say, as Arzón herself says many times throughout her book, I call bullshit on her words. But then there’s this:

Our inner monologue can turn can’t into can and dreams into realities. Extinguish doubt with action. Let’s write the story that says we are a little better than yesterday. We can push ourselves to where we want to be. It’s going to take a little sweat, though. Happy is something you do, baby, and only you are responsible for your happiness. Life is happening right now, so stop making up excuses and tell me, what do you want your story to be? Do you want to be a runner? Have you always dreamed of completing a marathon? Whatever it is, write it down, look back on it, and own it.

These sentences — sentences like this — worry me. Arzón’s thoughts are not unique; her words are a part of a general conversation, one that I hear around me almost every day. And it is a conversation I can’t help fretting about. I am alarmed when I hear someone confuse athletic prowess with personal greatness. Or when I hear someone link the idea of their becoming a better person, of their living a better life, with the act of slipping on a pair of running shoes. Or when I hear someone use words and phrases like ‘strive’ and ‘focus’ and ‘dedication’ and human potential (that last is Arzón again) to describe, not acts of goodness, let alone greatness, but essentially self-centred feats of fitness and strength, speed and endurance.

I decided to do one thing with my life — epic shit — and I want you to come along for the ride, Arzón writes, of her long-distance running. Maybe I’m wrong, but those words make me feel empty and sad.

Having said that, I also do not wish this post to turn into a lecture, or a rant. I do not wish to moralise. So I will just say this: I took my bike ride that morning slowly, because that was what the day asked of me, and what my life seems to be asking of me generally right now — regardless of my dreams, regardless of whatever kind of story I might prefer to write down about myself. It was a gentle ride, and I felt gentler for it afterwards (though still somewhat unwell).

And that, I think, is how I want to live out my days: gently. Slowly. With kindness, both to myself and to others. With humility.

Tell me, am I alone in this? How do you want to live?

Snatched phrases (on terror)

April 12, 2017 § 2 Comments

In the actual moment, you do not have a choice.
Grace finds you.
Acceptance hunts you down.

From ‘The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End
by Katie Roiphe

Forgive me, but I’ve pulled Roiphe’s words out of context here. She is talking, specifically, about death: her fear of it, and her admiration of the way others face it. I don’t have the same preoccupation with death — or not yet, anyway: not in my mid-forties. I like to hope I have some way to go before it crosses my path.

Still, sometimes I think that fear is the great equaliser. Maybe you get through the terror because you have to get through the terror, Roiphe writes. It’s the same with all great fears, isn’t it?

Grace, acceptance, resilience, surrender — these are all things I’ve touched on before on this blog (here, for example, and here). May they come to you, too, in your moments of greatest fear: may they be your companions along the way.

The beast

April 4, 2017 § 4 Comments

Snatched phrases (on being present)

Do the anxiety. Then leave it there. This is our challenge.

from ‘First, We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Story about Anxiety
by Sarah Wilson

Simple words, huh? They apply to all manner of ills, I think — not just anxiety. They are about staying in the present: doing the hard stuff when it comes up, not questioning it or agonising over it … and then leaving it behind and moving on.

There are no solutions to anxiety out there, Wilson argues further on: no cures or fixes. So you just do it …

… and then you leave it.

This makes great sense to me.

Today’s photos? They’re from one of my latest wanders in the Scrub, a couple of weeks ago: mid-March. It was a still, grey afternoon, and when I first began to walk, the colours seemed drab, and the birdsong was muted, and the air felt unkind and cold.

But as I wandered on, I began to see a few flowers despite the greyness, and I came upon a kangaroo, which stiffened at my bumbling approach and then bounded away. I heard the sea murmur somewhere through and beyond the thicket of trees, and a magpie began to carol, low and soft.

I had done my day, and I had left it there, and things were fine. Just fine.

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