Unpacked

Other people’s words about … surfing and the sea

Nearly all of what happens in the water is ineffable — language is no help. Wave judgment is fundamental, but how to unpack it? You’re sitting in a trough between waves, and you can’t see past the approaching swell, which will not become a wave you can catch. You start paddling upcoast and seaward. Why? If the moment was frozen, you could explain that, by your reckoning, there’s a fifty-fifty chance that the next wave will have a good takeoff spot about ten yards over and a little farther out from where you are now. This calculation is based on: your last two or three glimpses of the swells outside, each glimpse caught from the crest of a previous swell; the hundred-plus waves you have seen break in the past hour and a half; your cumulative experience of three or four hundred sessions at this spot, including fifteen or twenty days that were much like this one in terms of swell size, swell direction, wind speed, wind direction, tide, season, and sandbar configuration; the way the water seems to be moving across the bottom; the surface texture and the water colour; and, beneath these elements, innumerable subcortical perceptions too subtle and fleeting to express. The last factors are like the ones that the ancient Polynesian navigators relied upon when, on the open seas, they used to lower themselves into the water between the outriggers on their canoes and let their testicles tell them where in the great ocean they were.

Of course, the moment can’t be frozen.

From ‘Barbarian Days’
by William Finnegan

My partner is in his mid-fifties now, and, like William Finnegan, has been surfing since he was a teenager. Though he and I are both avid beach-lovers, I know that when he looks at the sea, he sees something different from what I see.

I (from my admittedly middle-class, Western, leisured perspective) look at the sea for beauty. I don’t understand the sea’s tides, its swells, its waves. I understand, simply, how the sea makes me feel.

It’s hard to express my feelings about the sea in actual words, though. They are, to use Finnegan’s words in a slightly different way, subtle, fleeting,subcortical, ineffable.

And … good.



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Miracle

Other people’s words about … running

Soon, he is at the base of the mountains, his heart rate is at least 140, and the peaks tower over him like wild, hungry beasts. It is this moment in which Russ understands himself best. In which he could easily say, my name is Russ Fletcher, I am a man living a certain sort of life, and I am happy.This gasping moment is free of obligation, of expectation and that bruised yellow past. It is only Russ and his beating man’s heart, Russ and the cloud of his breath as it unfurls white in the cold morning, Russ and the burn, burn of his legs. The needle-prick attention of his mind, as it focuses on blazing extremities. Running, Russ is okay. Running, he moves forward.

From ‘Girl in Snow
by Danya Kukafka

I have a chequered history with running, but recently, I’ve taken up the habit on my own terms. Here’s how it goes: every day, either before or after work, I make the effort to stroll down the road to the beach, and then, once I’m on the sand, a few metres from the shore, I break into a run for a few minutes. Often, honestly, I run for only five minutes or so before slowing down, turning around and heading back home. I guess it’s as much about getting fresh air into my lungs, moving my limbs a little before or after sitting at a desk all day, feeling sand crumble beneath the soles of my feet, as it is about anything you might want to call ‘fitness’ or ‘athleticism’.

Occasionally, though — once or twice a week, if I’m lucky — I run for a longer time, for twenty minutes or so. I take my camera with me (so that I can stop along the way to take photos like the ones in this post) and go for a run through the Scrub, or beside the railway line, or along the foreshore path. No matter how slowly I run, or how heavy my legs seem to become, or how tired I was beforehand, or even, some days, how sub-par I felt before I set off, there is always a moment on these runs when I feel, like Russ in the passage above, that I understand [my]self best, a moment when I feel free of obligation, of expectation, of that bruised yellow past.

A couple of years ago, when I first took up running again after a lapse of twenty years, I hoped to run for much longer times, to run much further distances. That seemed to be what every other runner did, after all. And that’s what I wanted to be: a runner.

But running is like everything else in life: what works for other people isn’t necessarily what works for me. And over the last two or three years, I’ve learned — at first to my bitter (childish?) disappointment, and then, slowly, to my joy — that I can find a way to run on my own terms and still find pleasure in it. Still find release. Still find hope. And reason. And courage. And peace. And, like Russ, who runs when he’s both joyous (as in the first quote) and terribly sad (as in the next quote), freedom.

Russ runs. He takes off down the sterile … streets … All he can do now is push — move his body, sweat it out, keep inching forward. For now, he focuses on his own limbs and the miracle ways in which they serve him. The freedom of the open Colorado sky.

I thought at first, when I couldn’t run the distances I wanted to run, the distances I thought I should run, the way everyone else seemed to, that I was giving up. It took me a while to understand that finding a way to run that worked for me wasn’t so much about giving up as it was about learning to surrender.

Surrendering is not the same as giving up. I didn’t understand this before. I am glad that I am beginning to now.

Big

Other people’s words about … sunsets

The sun was setting. There were plenty of natural phenomena that went unrecognised (snowflakes kissing a windowsill, fingernails dug into the skin of a tangerine), but Cameron could see why people made such a big deal of sunsets. The sunset at Pine Ridge Point always made Cameron feel so disastrously human, caged inside his own susceptible self.

From ‘Girl in Snow
by Danya Kukafka

I found Danya Kukafka’s words in the passage above very poignant — although when I watch the sun set, I feel, unlike her character Cameron, as though I am escaping the cage of my susceptible [human] self to join with the rest of the natural world.

For me, both the sense of bigness, and the sense of being a tiny part of that bigness, make me feel at once grounded and free. Perhaps some of the photos below, which I took on a number of evenings this past January and February, might give you that sense, too?

Out and about: the last summer days

‘When you’re walking the view shifts and changes.
Walking’s a form of hope.’

from ‘The World Without Us
by Mireille Juchau

 

Here’s the thing I always forget as summer draws to a close and the annual grey-weather dread steals over me: there are moments, at this time of year, when the wind drops, and the sea becomes shining and silken and blue.

I took the photos in today’s post as I wandered the beach at Largs Bay one afternoon a few days ago, in the week before Easter. The day was so still, and the tide so low, that the pine trees along the Esplanade were reflected in small pools of seawater that had formed between the sandbar and the main ocean …

… and out on the water, ships hung suspended in blueness, somewhere between sea and sky:

It was an afternoon that reminded me that there’s joy and beauty in every season — yes, even in the seasons you’d rather not be heading into …

On labour

Other people’s words about … loneliness

Dad’s dying had been like a long labor, the work mostly his, but the experience for me was as profound, as isolating, as the labor of birth. For weeks after my son was delivered, I remember, I was stunned by it — by what I’d gone through, by how alone with it I’d felt, by how astonished I was by it, and by how isolating that astonishment was. Others held my son, admired him. They saw him simply as a big healthy baby. But when I looked at him, part of what I saw and felt was how he’d come to me, that long solitary labor, the amazing combination of agony and release that I felt I could explain to no one else. And in some nearly parallel way, this is what I felt about my father’s death. It was what I returned to frequently, it was privately where I lived, for a long time after it was over.

From ‘The Story of My Father
by Sue Miller

Let me start by explaining (hastily!) that the affinity I feel with the words in the quote above is not because I’ve ever given birth (I have not). Nor, more importantly, is it because I’ve recently experienced the death of anyone close to me, let alone my father, who is a strong, healthy, happy man whose company I hope to enjoy for many years to come. No, not at all.

I am a big fan of Sue Miller’s writing. What I most like is her attention to detail, her scrupulous examination of people’s inner workings — their thoughts, their feelings, their individual senses and perceptions — and the way she then builds on these ‘small’ things to make ‘big’ stories from them. A writer friend of mine who isn’t a fan of Miller’s books once said to me that she feels ‘dead inside’ when she reads a Miller novel. And I get that, actually. I think, in fact, that what my friend dislikes about Miller’s writing is exactly what I like: the precision, the detail, the refusal to hurry over anything, or to be swayed by sentiment or affection or a need for resolution for her characters.

I’ve explored loneliness and isolation a lot in my posts on this blog, but I thought the theme was worth returning to because of Miller’s words here. I was stunned by it, she says of giving birth, by how astonished I was by it, and by how isolating that astonishment was. This, for me, distils the experience of living itself, the realisation that each experience we have, however great or small, however joyful or devastating, is an experience we feel we [can] explain to no one else.

In the last couple of years, whenever I’ve experienced bouts of unwellness or anxiety (or both, combined) that have left me feeling isolated at home, struggling to go out, struggling to get to work or to catch up with people I love, I have found myself, afterwards, return[ing] to those experiences repeatedly in my mind; I have found that those times of illness were, for a while, privately where I lived.

Miller’s use of the word labor here refers only to giving birth, but the passage applies to other things, too, if you reframe it: to the labour of living, of loneliness — yes, to that astonishing labour.

And yet, still, it is worth labouring on.

Of peonies and perception

Other people’s words about … memory

That was the beginning of that summer, which merged in many of their minds with other summers, but was remembered chiefly as the summer that young William was born, and there was that sad matter of the other baby; but remembered by Polly as the summer that [her cat] Pompey died and his splendid funeral; remembered by old William Cazalet as the summer he clinched the deal over buying the Mill Farm down the road; remembered by Edward as the summer when, offering to stand in for Hugh at the office, he met Diana for the first time; remembered by Louise as the summer she got the Curse; remembered by Teddy as the summer when he shot his first rabbit and his voice started going funny; remembered by Lydia as the summer she got locked in the fruit cage by the boys who forgot her, went off to play bicycle hockey and then to lunch and nobody found her until half-way through lunch (it was Nan’s day off) and she’d worked out that when the gooseberries were over, she’d die of nothing to eat; remembered by Sid as the summer when she finally understood that Rachel would never leave her parents, but that she, Sid, could never leave Rachel; remembered by Neville as the time his loose tooth came out when he was on his fairy cycle which he could only dismount by running into something so he swallowed the tooth and didn’t dare tell anyone, but waited in terror for it to bite him inside; remembered by Rupert as the summer when he realised that in marrying Zoe he had lost the chance of being a serious painter, would have to stick to school-mastering to provide her even with what she thought of as the bare necessities; remembered by [Edwards’s wife] Villy as the summer when she got so bored that she started to teach herself to play the violin and made a scale model of the Cutty Sark which was too large to put into a bottle, something she had done with a smaller ship the previous summer; remembered by Simon as the holidays Dad taught him to drive, up and down the drive in the Buick; remembered by Zoe as the frightful summer when she was three weeks late and thought that she was pregnant; remembered by the Duchy as the summer that the tree paeony first flowered; remembered by Clary as the summer she broke her arm falling off [her horse] Joey when Louise was giving her a riding lesson and when she sleepwalked into the dining room when they were all having dinner and she thought it was a dream and Dad picked her up and carried her to bed; remembered by Rachel as the summer she actually saw a baby being born, but also the summer when her back really started to go wrong, was only intermittently right for the rest of her life. And remembered by Will, whose first summer it was, not at all.

From ‘The Light Years
by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Today’s quote is a long one, so I’ll keep my own words short. Howard in this passage describes, poignantly, two things — first (and most obviously), the way our experiences are filtered by our own perceptions and then, further, by our own memories, so that the way one person remembers something can be entirely different from the way another remembers it; and second, she describes the summer of 1938, which was the year before World War II began, though Howard — deliberately, I think — does not say so in this passage, and does not have her characters remember it that way.

Every time I read this passage I find myself sympathising with a different character, or nodding in recognition at a different character’s thoughts or feelings. And then, in turn, I find myself thinking about my own memories, and re-examining them, and wondering how someone else, going through the same things, would perceive and remember them …