This moment, now

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.

From ‘Aftermath’
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.

Look up from your work
every now and then.
Take a step back.

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.

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Ubiquitous

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.

from ‘Anaesthesia’
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.

Note:
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.

The tea shop of heaven

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 …

No, wait.

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 …

Snatched phrases on … sweet air

‘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.

Out and about: field of flowers

‘The fight for free space — for wilderness and public space —
must be accompanied by a fight for free time
to spend wandering in that space.’

from ‘Wanderlust
by Rebecca Solnit

I nipped down to our house in Aldinga for a couple of days recently, and just had time for a quick cycle to the bakery on my bike for fresh ciabatta and then for a brisk walk the following day.

I think cycling is a form of wandering, don’t you?

Cycling home past the supermarket, I noticed that the field of gazanias was out in bloom again.

As I remarked around the same time last year, gazanias are noxious weeds in our parts …

… but they never fail to lift my spirits.

The standstill

Other people’s words about … writing

I knew I was writing a book about anaesthesia, but I didn’t know why. Nor did I know why it mattered to me that I didn’t know. Why does anyone do anything? What I was struggling with … was not simply why I was writing (and consequently, I felt, what I was really writing about), but who was doing the writing. There seemed to me two ‘me’s — each with their own agendas and itineraries and neither able or prepared to communicate with the other. Everything one wrote, the other rejected. One I will call the journalist — a pragmatic procedural self, this ‘me’ positioning myself as the objective observer reporting on what I found in my travels. The other I will call the dreamer. Not in the romantic sense, but the dreamer as fool, blundering around, kicking up fragments of a different story.

from ‘Anaesthesia’
by Kate Cole-Adams

I’ve been writing the same book for the last seven years, and that seems to me, in today’s world of electronic publishing and social media, a very long time. It is a long time. I’m a realist: I know that there are no guarantees I’ll ever finish it; and I know, too, that even if I do, there no guarantees it will get published. Still, for whatever reason, I find I can’t write any faster than I do.

So I was encouraged when I read that it took Kate Cole-Adams ten years or so to research, write and publish her non-fiction book Anaesthesia, from which I’ve quoted above. It’s a very fine book, worth taking ten years to write, I think. I found myself marking out several passages as I read it — passages I returned to over and over, and thought about using for one or more of my blog posts. So the quote I’ve used today may be just the first: there will be more to come, I hope.

Everything one [part of me] wrote, the other rejected. It occurred to me when I read these words that, over and above her own personal experience of her self, which Anaesthesia in part explores, what Cole-Adams is really describing in this passage is writer’s block. People think of writer’s block as being unable to write, but I don’t think that’s what it is, not really. In my experience it’s more a case of writing and writing, but hating everything that you write. You write, you write, you delete, you delete. Eventually, you come to a writing standstill.

At a standstill —
or poised to soar?

I like Cole-Adams’s image of herself, the writer, as dreamer and fool, blundering around, kicking up fragments of a different story. For me, too, that’s what writing often seems to be about. And sometimes — just sometimes — when you allow this to happen, when you allow the judgmental, procedural part of yourself to step back from the stage, it seems okay that this is how it feels.

At moments like this, it seems okay, too, to be taking your time to write what you write. Five years. Seven years. Nine years. Ten. It’s all part of the blundering, right?

‘Good morning, beautiful,’ he said.

Other people’s words about … being called beautiful

All that week, this man [a friend of my mother’s, old enough to be my father] will pay for my taxi ride from school to the hotel. And I’ll ride in it, lipstick matching my nail polish, bra matching my underwear, feeling like a girl in a movie until I get there and then when I get there, see him waving at me by the entrance, ready to pay the driver, I will not feel like that anymore. You look nice, he’ll say in the elevator on the way up, if we are alone. Nice, not beautiful. Never will this man or any man call me beautiful, not for a long, long time.

from ’13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl’
Mona Awad

As much as possible, I try to keep my personal life out of this blog, at least in as far as the people I’m close to are concerned. So I will just say here that when I read the passage above, it brought tears to my eyes.

I live now with the first man who truly called me beautiful. We have been together for nearly twenty years, and he still makes me feel beautiful, inside and out.

(Because that’s the thing about beauty, anyway, right? It isn’t just about the way you look. That’s why You look nice will never cut it.)

Oh, and in case you hadn’t gathered already, we spend time together, the two of us, in beautiful spots, too, as the photos accompanying today’s post demonstrate …