How the light gets in

Over Sea, Under Stone by Martin Johansson

Over Sea, Under Stone by Martin Johansson

14 March 2016
2:16 PM
Manila, Philippines

My dear M.–

I’m not sure I’m what could qualify as a strong person. There are so many things that I’m scared about; I sometimes stop and ask myself, when have I become this human being? Someone who has a lot of anxieties and can scarcely go a week without spiralling into some kind of panic attack. I want to say, I don’t know. It’s so much easier that way, maybe, to shrug my shoulders and sort of helplessly laugh, I don’t know! And then go about my days.

But I do know the hows, and the specific when of it. See, all my life I was living with good days and bad days, until about five years ago when the bad became worse. And then it was simply a matter of letting yourself slide deeper and deeper into the pit because the rest of it—living—was such a shit alternative.

Any one thing can make me strong: the way the sunlight beckons at my desk at eight in the morning, the memory of the sea, the knowledge that I am loved and wanted, finishing writing a poem I think might be worth a read, letters from friends, coming home from a trip, and so on.

But the one thing that has made me stronger: digging into myself and finding the desire to be here. To occupy space, and to know that I can be, just be.

I realise that a lot of it has to do with having a mental illness and accepting that I am not a lesser person because of it. Oh, there are some nights when everything would be inexplicable and I know for certain how broken I am. Some afternoons though, like this one—I can almost live with it, not being put back together as I used to be. I’m chipped and scarred, and who knows how many ways I can still shatter. But that’s the thing: that’s how the light gets in.

Yours,
T.

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I am not a localist

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2 August 2016
13:52pm
Sydney

T.-

I haven’t read a good book recently. By that, I mean: I haven’t been consumed by a book. I haven’t gotten sucked in. I haven’t gotten captivated. I recently read Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. The story was captivating. It drew me in. But there, I’m talking about the narrative. I’m not describing the soul of the book.

I’ve been wanting a book like The Book Thief, like the tiny thin volume of “Antarctica Stories” (Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice by Helen Garner) that made me swallow them whole because I couldn’t tear my attention away from them.

For more than a year, A. has been halfway through reading The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. My dear E. in Edinburgh and I have been reading through some slim non-fiction nature volumes (by some, I mean one, but the pattern is set in my head now), not unlike this one.

But this one. Oh, this one.

I haven’t gotten to the actual content yet (clearly I’ve stolen it off him). Nan Shepherd has written Twelve short essays about the Cairngorms:

One: The Plateau
Two: The Recesses
Three: The Group
Four: Water
Five: Frost and Snow
Six: Air and Light
Seven: Life: The Plants
Eight: Life: Birds, Animals, Insects
Nine: Life: Man
Ten: Sleep
Eleven: The Senses[1]
Twelve: Being

The book fits nicely in my hand. It’s soft, it’s pliable. It’s short. I know I can get through it swiftly – probably in one sitting.

But so far, I’m not even finished with Robert Macfarlane’s introduction.

Partially, this is due to the quality of the introduction. He’s treated it like a personal essay, as well as a contextual piece. It has its own endnotes. Partially, this is because I fell in love with Robert Macfarlane in a bookshop when I picked up his book on walking.[2]

And partially, this is because almost everything he says in his introduction sparks an association in me which is more fruitful than the linear reading.

*

I’ve very frequently said: a book may be made to read linearly, from the start to the finish, in one narrative arc. But that’s not what I’m made for. I’m made for so much more than that. It’s been my excuse for cross-reading, for having a book of poems, essays, short stories on the go at the same time as a libretto, a novel (no, three novels), a memoir. At a pub in Redfern a few weeks ago, the bartender jokingly called me “a literary floozy.” I don’t necessarily deny it. I have worn my stack of bedside books as a badge of honour.

But recently, like I wrote in the past entry, I’ve been dealing with an upsurge of anxiety. It has come into my brain like the worst kind of static. It surges through my body like a tightening – like constriction and unstable vibrations at the same time. It is an earthquake of shaking and noise and dissonance, and I’ve had a hard time keeping it at bay and funnelling it where it needs to be redirected.

Yesterday at work, my mind was busy. Busy is not bad. Busy is okay. But when the weight of busy becomes too prominent, busy can trip over into anxiety. Not anxiety about the work. It’s not really anxiety about anything. It’s more: a familiar common muscle, a bad habit, something that has gotten reinforced, and then cracked open, and then healed, and then sometimes resurfaces in times of stress again. It’s not anxiety about the work. It’s just a pattern, a reaction that has gotten triggered recently.

I meditated on my lunch break, and just started writing, straight out of the meditation:

*

Monday 1st August – 14:06

So many thoughts. Just slow down. Let them crowd in, wash over you. Let them come in like wave upon wave, because the ocean doesn’t stop for anything either – there are just tides, and constant movement.

You are only riding on the surface right now, which is why there are waves and waves one after the other. You are being pummelled by the gift of plentitude. You can’t take a break and a breath yet in order to prioritise, in order to process or make order of any of the ideas.

You need to dive down. Don’t feel claustrophobic. Beneath the surface, the water is just like sky (there’s a great quote about that in Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Lacuna about that. Read it. Dive back into that book).

This diving deep can be in a natural, open air space if you need it to be, if you need to feel the air around you. But once you dive down deeper, the rip tide isn’t pulling you under. The waves are still there, but they don’t dominate your vision.

What is just a little bit deeper than this experience?

What emotions, thoughts, insights, are floating just a little bit deeper than this moment?

Just a little bit deeper.

You can only follow one thought at a time in order to really follow through fully. Each day: pick a thought.

Each day, for each job, for each section, for each hour: pick a thought to follow. Pick one book to read. Pick one letter to write. Pick one priority.

Make a list, make all the lists. The lists can still be there – make a list for the week, and keep migrating things off onto each day. But each day, each moment in time, there can only be one focus.

Just like you can only watch one TV show, one movie at a time, try to choose one project, one idea to follow.

Let it lead you. Let it unpack itself into your life. All of your ideas are like travellers moving through hotel rooms – getting all the experience, but never unpacking, never staying, never settling in. Be like Jack Kerouac, even when the going is crazy, who still had time to sit down and reflect and pin some thoughts down to paper.

Try having a one-track mind. Just for an hour. See where it will go. See where it will take you.

Ruminating on the future? The future unravels like a carpet in front of you. Know that the richness you seek is already inside of you. You don’t need more (more books, more money, more space, more ideas, more presents, more letters, more events, more achievements, more products, more goals) in order to embrace this plentitude.

You need more presence. You need to be in more conversation with spirit, with soul, with the depths below the surface.

Just watch all the craziness as it swirls around you, but don’t hang onto it. Take your hands off. Let it pass. Let it go.

It is not yours.

This anxiety is not yours.

This chaos is not yours.

Similarly, these goals you are building, these achievements you are experiencing: these are not yours.

If you hold onto them and present them to other people wrapped in a bow, you will always have to be the one shepherding them, the one who brings them to other people’s attention. If you grow them up, and let them live, give them their own existence and let them go, they will grow legs and arms and commune their own way in the world. Your name may or may not be attached to them. This is not an exercise in ownership. This is an exercise in how things grow and evolve. This is an exercise in contributing to the world. This is not about possessing things. This is not about medals or congratulations.

Take the idea, shape it, make it, let it go.

Take it, shape it, make it, let it go.

Take it, shape it, make it, let it LIVE.

*

On the way home, I stood at the bus stop in the rain and deleted all 16 books from my “currently reading” list on Goodreads. I put them back on “to-read,” and added them to “partially-read.” The progress will be saved, hopefully, so I can remember where I am. If not, I’ll just go back and read through until it stops sounding familiar.

I started to dive deeply into “The Living Mountain.”

I started to build out all the associations in my head, to follow them simply, one by one. I stopped myself from rushing through the slight volume.

‘The Cairngorms were once higher than today’s Alps, but over millions of years they have been eroded into a low-slung wilderness of whale-backed hills and shattered cliffs. Born of fire, carved by ice, finessed with wind, water and snow, the massif is a terrain shaped by what Nan Shepherd – in this slender masterpiece about the region – calls ‘the elementals.’ (ix)

I’m jealous of her innate knowledge of the Cairngorms. I love hiking. I love mountains, and rivers, and lakes, and trees, but I can’t name any of them. I read nature-writing and I feel like my baseline knowledge is incomplete: as a writer, as a naturalist, as the person I am, I want to know more. And it’s this trap of competency and knowledge that pushes me into all the areas. I have interest for more content than I could possibly consume. I am not a walking encyclopaedia, nor should I strive to be. My highest skill-set is in the connections and relationships between things, identifying patterns, bridging disparate ideas, holding a space for cognitive dissonance, distilling concepts, articulation. I have to remind myself: you are not inadequate for failing to be the “facts person” for each of your wide range of interests.

*

‘Shepherd was localist of the best kind: she came to know her chosen place closely, but that closeness served to intensify rather than limit her vision.’ (x)

‘Again and again, Kavanagh returned to the connection between the universal and parochial, and to the idea that we learn by scrutiny of the close-at-hand. ‘All great civilisations are based on parochialism,’ he wrote finely:

To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.

Shepherd came to know the Cairngorms ‘deeply’ rather than ‘widely,’ and they are to her what Selbourne was to Gilbert White, the Sierra Nevada were to John Muir and the Aran Islands are to Tim Robinson. They were her inland-island, her personal parish, the area of territory that she loved, walked and studied over time such that concentration within its perimeters led to knowledge cubed rather than knowledge curbed.’ (xv-xvi)

I have mixed feelings about the scale of Shepherd’s scope. I admire it, to be sure. I appreciate her keen eye for detail, before I’ve even read one of her observations. I’m still getting all of this second-hand through Robert Macfarlane, and Neil Gunn, and comparisons to Patrick Kavanagh.

But I’m deeply jealous. And that’s because, at the heart of things, I know I’m not a localist.

We’re about to move again: just a few streets over, and around the corner. But A. made the joke to friends at a picnic on Saturday: “We’ve been here for a year. We clearly have a hard time living in one house for longer than a year. Or, least be honest, we have a hard time living in one country.”

It was true. And it was funny, to our friends, because it was true. But hearing this echo in my head while I read about Nan Shepherd, I think of all of the places I have wanted to belong to, as a local. To become deeply entrenched in. To know the depth of, not the breadth of. I am a person with a lot of breadth, but I have a longing for all the places where I haven’t stopped and taken root. The areas of knowledge I haven’t dived into, the skills I haven’t pursued. The places I haven’t stayed.

This haunts me. And that has never been more clear to me than now, beginning to read Nan’s intimate knowledge of a place, where I’m not sure I’ll be able to follow.

Obviously, this all makes me think of Iona. With such a small space: it was easy to know it deeply. With such a thin separation between earth and heaven there, it was easy to connect to the land and for it to be irrevocably ingrained on the spirit. It’s one of the only places that feels like a tear in the fabric of time and reality. It holds itself apart, and it is deeply rooted within me. But that feels more like a quality of Iona than a comment on my ability to know a place intimately.

I know that I know people intimately. Isn’t a person their own kind of landscape, their own map and history?

*

‘Intellectually, she was what Coleridge once called a ‘library-cormorant’; omnivorous and voracious in her reading. On 7 May 1907, aged just fourteen, she started the first of what she called her ‘medleys’ – commonplace books into which she copied literary, religious, and philosophical citations, and which reveal the breadth of her reading as a young woman.’ (xi)

I love the image of the ‘library-cormorant’: it evokes images in my head of Audrey Niffinegger’s Raven Girl. I have often felt the urge to consume books. I talk about them in terms of ‘eating’ and ‘swallowing’ them. I’ve also recently just gone back to my own ‘commonplace books’. I’ve stopped reprimanding myself for the vast spread of notebooks (I’m back to: bullet journal, Real World notebook, Social Media College notebook, daily reflection book, deeper identity book, Word document, and scraps of poetry and quotes in various other notebooks. I also have an ‘idea’ notebook, just to capture the skeletons of all the projects flying through my brain). Now, I just write. Where and when I can.

*

‘Shepherd is a fierce see-er, then. And like many fierce see-ers, she is also a part-time mystic, for whom intense empiricism is the first step to immanence. ‘I knew when I had looked for a long time,’ she writes, ‘that I had hardly begun to see.’ (xix)

It’s been over a year since I met the idea for my novel. It’s been slow going capturing the idea into my own words, but I recognise it everywhere. I hear it in music, I see its qualities appear in someone else’s poem. I see the narrative play out in the relationships between real-world people. Every time it appears to me, I jot down more notes. I pick a quote at random and write to it from within the story.

This quote about Nan Shepherd is the closest I’ve been able to describe this process so far. I’ve never written a novel before. I don’t know what the writing of a novel is supposed to feel like. But it feels like a chipping away at the block of marble, revealing what has always been underneath, but what only I have been able to see thus far.

It feels like a vision-ing.

I’m reading for Thailand. I’m ready to excavate it. It has been patient enough for me. Now is the time to double down.

*

‘Shepherd – like Neil Gunn and like the Scottish explorer-essayist W.H. Murray – was strongly influenced by her reading in Buddhism and the Tao. Shards of Zen philosophy glitter in the prose of all three writers, like mica flecks in granite. Reading their work now, with its fusion of Highland landscape and Buddhist metaphysics, remains astonishing: like encountering a Noh play performed in a kailyard, or chrysanthemums flourishing in a corrie.’ (xix – xx)

Yes. I am so ready for this.

Observation + self-reflection + nature + empiricism + zen koans + the spirit = I have been so ready to find this book.

Note to self: read all these people.

*

That’s enough for today. Part 2 to come soon. Maybe, by then, I will have actually started to read the book, itself.

M

[1] I almost wrote “The Sentences” here. Which is kind of a beautiful slip-up. I couldn’t let it get lost in the correction.

[2] I accidentally wrote “when I picked up his book on [writing]” in my first draft of this post. I almost left it un-corrected, because I feel like exceptional books about walking are always books about writing. I’m thinking of Rebecca Solnit. I’m thinking of Mary Oliver.

 

Tripping the Switch

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by Patrick Fore, from Unsplash

18-19 July 2016
12:55pm
Sydney

T.-

This morning, I yelled at the cat.

I lost my Opal card (used for public transport in Sydney). I tore the house apart looking for it. I was late for work. I had diffused an emotional bomb yesterday (and was conveniently working from home, which gave me the ability to level-up my self-care practices). I woke up early this morning, had a good breakfast. Actually sat down with time to spare before the commute.

But the clock ticked closer to leaving, and as I was gathering my things, I noticed what was missing. In running around looking for it, the cat either thought we were playing a game, or asking for more food. In any case, I exploded. I yelled at her to shut up.

I yelled in a way I haven’t yelled at anyone in years. Least of all toward a child or an animal (and yes, the cat fills both of these roles right now). The scary part was; realising that if A had been here, I might have taken out my frustration on him instead.

*

Something as small and insignificant as losing my Opal card shouldn’t have tripped me back into anxiety and frustration. But the trouble is, it’s the long-tail following on from the patterns of the last few days.

Some triggers I can recognise: I’ve been experiencing a slew of “ups” recently. Great things have been happening. Things have been busy, but not unmanageably so.

I say that, and what I mean is: I am good with all the things that are happening. I am handling workloads well. I am becoming more effective and refining my best practices as the days pass. Each day, I’m doing exponentially more and better than the day before.

The truth I’m avoiding is: I’ve put too much pressure on myself outside of work. I haven’t provided downtime to recover from all of the learning going on. I haven’t built in processing time.

As a result, I’ve been running on 15 consecutive days that have been filled with tasks, learning, activity, collaboration, and doing. I have had no weekend breaks from doing. With the influx of activity, things to process, and the general meeting and scaling of goal after goal after goal – I was expecting there to be a downswing in energy. I saw it coming. I was running through a lot of fuel – I even started an Open Projects notebook to try to sketch down all the skeletons of personal projects, so that I wouldn’t lose them if I needed to backburner them in order to prioritise work.

I was setting up new practices for how to filter these things through to the inevitable dip in energy, mood, and motivation that follows months of successes.

What I forgot to factor in was: how emotional circumstances can trip the switch and trigger a downturn where I’m not expecting it, no matter how fully stocked my bomb shelter might be.

B left this weekend, and I felt truly shattered.

*

When I first met the Irishman, we bonded a lot over books, ideas, and reading. We met at a conference (that was Day 1). Day 2 of our friendship was a week later when we met up for a book date at Ampersand (a combo café and bookstore). We didn’t plan it out in too much detail. Just a Sunday, a time, and a place with Cronuts.

We both showed up with almost identically tall towers of books to lend to the other person. A perfectly weighted, spontaneous bookswap.

One of the books B lent me was “Furiously Happy: a funny book about horrible things” by Jenny Lawson. He opened immediately to show me the Epilogue (um, spoilers!) called Deep in the Trenches. I’ve been searching for it online, but I’ll have to copy it out later when I’m back home with the book.

Needless to say, we engaged in a deep conversation about experiences of mental illness. Everything from depression, to anxiety, to mania, to things further afield from our own experiences.

He told me about a program in Sydney where individuals can get training to speak to high school students about their own journeys and experiences.

I said, “That’s cool. But it’s probably not for me. I wouldn’t have anything to share.”

B just looked at me. I think this look might have been from Day 4 or 5 of our friendship, but it still sears through me. It was the look that said, “Really? Are you sure?” The look that doubted the truth of what I just said.

*

Over the course of the past 5 or 6 years, I think I’ve gotten a lot more truthful with myself. I’ve recognised shortcomings. I’ve looked deeply into areas about myself and my relationships that I don’t understand. Yesterday, in the Creative Hive, I wrote: I also know: I never learned how to be a good friend. I think I am a good friend, but I’ve had to grow into it through a lot of trial and error.

That’s true of so many things.

In high school, I usually forgot to eat whenever I felt anxious, whenever I felt depressed. An awareness of food was the first thing to go.

In college, I learned more things to pile on top of unhappiness.

But by the end of college, I had started to show up at Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings. I learned more about the ways I hide from myself and the ways I doctor the truth of what’s happening. I learned about co-dependency.

I started learning how to show up, stay open, and be true to my own experience.

*

Living in Scotland, I recognised rises and dips in my seasonal moods. It’s hard to imagine any Scot would argue: the winters are long, and they are hard.

I started using a Philips full-spectrum light. Once, we used it from mid-winter onwards. The next year, we used it from August through to April.

The first year we were married, I thought I was broken.

Another year in Scotland, I thought I was cured.

*

Things are a lot different now. I have a stronger handle on my own abilities, of triggers, pattern-recognition, when I need to ask for help. To know when I need to let other people know I’m struggling.

I am stronger. Not just in what I’m capable of, but what I’m capable of bearing. I’m stronger by the manner in which I process, reflect, disseminate, and delegate. I’m stronger for the scrutiny and research I have put into the most effective self-care practices for me.

I have a community around me who will check in when my Grandfather dies, when all manner of travel plans fail, when obstacles and setbacks seem to pile up, and they suspect I might be faltering under the weight of them.

I have people who will send me photos of hamsters in blankets eating carrots. And dogs dragging teddy bears onto inflatable rafts.

I have a husband who – before departing for his road trip this weekend – looked at me and said, “I’m feeling like I don’t want to leave you.”

When I said I would be fine, he asked, “Will you make sure to eat vegetables?”

I have people who know that to check in with how I’m eating is sometimes the best indicator of support, of reminders, of what I need, of where I need to refocus.

Nonetheless, I’m having a hard week. And I’m focusing all of my self-care on getting to the other side of it.

*

Walking to the train station this morning, a little girl pushed her hands over her ears as she passed the cement mixer. She looked curious, but terrified. She wanted to block out the noise of what scared her.

Me too, little girl. Me too.

*

This post is going further away from what I thought I wanted to write about, which was: on top of my personal ebbs and flows, I’m feeling the weight of the world on me. I’m feeling crushed and truly, deeply thrown by global tragedy. I’m feeling heartbroken by 2016. There’s so much to unpack within that statement, and this post clearly wanted to go elsewhere.

I think I’ll have to write more about that next.

More soon.
M

Every poem’s half-erased

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Ampersand Bookstore and Café, Sydney

8 June 2016
12:31pm

Sydney

T. –

As for writing, I probably started when I was in high school. Everybody was busy reading Harry Potter; I was busy writing pathetic and angsty poems in a small notebook, ha. It wasn’t anything serious.

I was more interested, too, in memorising them. (T., 6 November, 2013)

When I was in college, I took a poetry class with a teacher I didn’t totally love. (Which is rare of my poetry tutors/mentors. Sigh. Oh, Paul). He told us this anecdote: of sitting in a diner in PA, eating his dinner, overhearing a young man reciting an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem to the girl he was sharing a meal with.

Paul said: “I wasn’t sure whether he was showing off, or whether he really just loved poetry. But I thought: what a poem to win a girl.

I don’t think this was the first poem I memorised. It gets a bit cloudy going that far back in memory, but I’m sure there was a Shirley Hughes poem from Stories by Firelight (a collection of 6 poems and 3 stories) that I adored, and learned, and recited at school.

But “Love Is Not All” is different. It captivated me to think of this boy out of someone else’s story, reciting a poem late at night in the corner of a diner over a cold plate of fries. Even now, it makes me think of all of my late nights in college with my companions (LMM’s influence makes me want to say compatriots), crowded around some food source, lounging in leather booths at coffee shops and random spots on campus: the places where some idea or concept or author or theory was being picked apart, examined, held up to the light, tried on in new voices.

Love Is Not All (Sonnet XXX)
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace.
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

I read it at an open mic night in Scotland, before I was comfortable in my own skin, before I had memorised my own poems (which, even still, I haven’t entirely). It was something I felt comfortable living in, offering up, sharing with others. It’s a heartbreaking sonnet, and a true sizing-up of love.

I recited it during a recent audition for a Shakespeare project, in which I wasn’t ultimately cast. It was the anchor I felt drawn back to. It sits in my bones.

*

Poetry is not a prize to be won. It’s a gift none of us really deserve. We don’t deserve to have it, we don’t deserve to write it, we don’t deserve to hear it because it is raw and honest and transparently better than us. All poetry surpasses the poet, and contributes to some larger Platonic sense of what-is-pointed-to.

Last night, I interrupted Andrew reading on his phone. “I’m reading a poem,” he said. “Don’t I get a kiss for that?”

He gets gratitude for that (he also got a kiss). He was reading Interrupted Meditation by Robert Hass, which I hadn’t even read yet.

Some of us whispered ‘art’,
he said. Some of us ‘truth.’ A debate with cut vocal chords.
You have to understand that, for all we knew, the Germans
would be there forever. And if not the Germans, the Russians.
Well, you don’t ‘have to’ understand anything, naturally.
No one knew which way to jump. What we had was language,
you see. Some said art, some said truth. Truth, of course,
was death.
What about being? I had asked him. Isn’t language responsible
to it, all of it, the texture of bread, the hairstyles
of the girls you knew in high school, shoelaces, sunsets,
the smell of tea? Ah, he said, you’ve been talking to Milosz.
To Czeslaw I say this: silence preceeds us. We are catching up.
For me there is no key, not even the sum total of our acts.
But you are a poet. You pretend to make poems. And?
Interrupted Meditation by Robert Hass

*

Before I moved from Edinburgh to Savannah, Andrew and I went on an international date.

We went out at the same time, then found each other online at the end of the day and told the other one all about what we did “together.”

M to A: “I took you to the park, and we drew sidewalk art, and you sat on the bench laughing while I taught a four-year-old named Mango how to ride a bike.”

A to M: “We went downtown to laugh at tourists, and went to the art shop, but you spilled a bag of papier mache mix just a little bit and then we had pizza at the best place and you watched me play video games with my aviators on… because everyone who wins high scores is allowed to wear aviators.”

I’ve been thinking about international dates again. Where would I take people in Sydney? Which friends would I go on a date with? And what would we do?

No matter what, I think it would be punctuated by sitting in a café with hot or cool drinks, in the sun or in a warm corner (or conversely, in a pub with a schooner or pint) – and reading. all. the. poetry.

“And, between these figuring lines,
white space, without which

who could read? Every poem’s
half erased. I’m not afraid;

it feels like home here,
held – like any line of text –

by the white margins
of a ghost’s embrace.”

– from Fog Suite by Mark Doty

Love,
M

Whatever Happens

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Meredith, via sfp

7 June 2016
12:16 PM 
Sydney, Australia

T. —

I think traveling with someone is an exercise in loving and forgiving. (T., April 19th, 2016)

I met a man on a train once. I mean, I’ve met many people on many trains. But this was a different kind of story.

I met a man on a train once, and I wrote him a poem. I mean, I wrote a poem about him. I mean, a met a man on a train station platform once, in the middle of Scotland. I mean, it was the East Coast of Scotland, in the remote train station of a remote town, on the last train back to Edinburgh, on a cold March evening.

At the Leuchar’s train station, waiting for the late-night train back to Edinburgh, there is a man in an old tweed hat, possibly older than he is. He paces up the platform, has left his bike by the door to the waiting room, and stands with his toes on the overhand of the concrete above the track. He peers into the undiscernable; the darkness of fields and blackness of sky that looks like it yields nothing, could only yield nothing… the nothing that is left in silence when the day creeps closed. But he is standing there for a while, silent, frozen in stillness as though listening for something; a hum of something distant, some reason why he’s here. Minutes pass and he is alert, aware, and raises his hands to his eyes, cups the light away from his face; a pair of amateur binoculars made out of what we hold between our hands. And it is then I want to call to him, to offer, “What is it you have lost?”

But he moves a few moments later, goes back to his bench, by his bike, pulls out a book with some semblance of pages, cracks it open. And we board the train in different cabins, in different places. But I ride the journey backwards, facing where I have come from, what I have left, and I look over my shoulder every time the door clicks open.

Truth be told, a piece of me fell a little bit in love with him, out there, in the cold platform air, in the stillness of winter March. Tomorrow it will be Spring March, not today. Today I loved the way he uncuffed his trousers from his socks and rode his bike down the platform beside the approaching train. Tonight was winter March in thaw, with a tall, silent man whose green eyes measured both me and the silent darkness with a variant of wonder and care.

I met a man on a station platform once, and I sat on the train writing about him. And I took out a new piece of paper, copied it out from At the Leuchar’s train station, to … “What is it you have lost?”

And I walked down the train, and gave it to him. He told me later: I tried to keep reading the newspaper after you left, but all I kept thinking was: do these things really happen?

I mean, I had this moment once, where I was caught up in the story of a story of a moment that was happening. I could see it from the outside: a compelling story that actually happened. Do these things happen? All the time, and always.

*

T., what I’ve loved about reading your notes on travelling is your gesture toward observation. You are always watching, always noting, always sewing things together in your mind and with your ink and your fingers.

I listened to an interview with David Whyte this morning from On Being with Krista Tippett, while I was on the train. So much happens on trains, in those liminal spaces. He was talking about observation, but in the broader sense of letting the world filter in toward us:

I went back into poetry because I felt like scientific language wasn’t precise enough to describe the experiences that I had in Galapagos. Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the “I.” But I was really interested in the way that the “I” deepened the more you paid attention.

And in Galapagos, I began to realize that, because I was in deeply attentive states, hour after hour watching animals and birds and landscapes — and that’s all I did for almost two years — I began to realize that my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had, inherited beliefs or manufactured beliefs, but my identity actually depended on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself. And that as you deepen this intentionality and this attention, you started to broaden and deepen your own sense of presence. And I began to realize that the only place where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you. That whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it.

But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass. And what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. But it’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level.

Half of what’s about to occur is unknown, both inside you and outside you. John O’Donohue, a mutual friend of both of us, used to say that one of the necessary tasks is this radical letting alone of yourself in the world. Letting the world speak in its own voice and letting this deeper sense of yourself speak out.

Whatever occurs is this meeting, this frontier.

*

This is a story I’ve told and retold. It has become shaped by time and memory. It is reshaped by how I tell it from where I’m standing. I’ve even fictionalised it, though the fiction hasn’t gotten very far from the truth:

It is a Sunday, and obviously March. The world is strung between seasons, hanging in a crevice of winter before turning the corner on spring. We are near the solstice, but evenings this time of year are always cold, regardless.

There are few other patrons at the Leucher’s train station tonight: she is inside: it’s just her, and a one-man queue waiting to buy a ticket. The clerk is engrossed in a magazine, and the traveler is too polite to interrupt, standing a respectable distance from the ticket window. Two other silhouettes gather by a vending machine on the platform. He is, at this moment, riding his bike across the disabled ramp between the platforms, but M hasn’t seen him yet, so let’s ignore the sound of his tires scattering gravel. For now, he does not exist.

She sits on the hard, wooden benches of the Leuchar’s train station. They are obviously repurposed church pews, she thinks. It’s not the size or shape that gives them away, but the unforgiving pressure of the wood. Her back is not meant for this rigidity, so she stands and stoops to gather her bags around her like small children who may be tempted astray.

She passes the patron, still ticketless, and gropes her way out of the waiting room. The platform is not very large, but the night’s darkness is advancing at the edges. She steps towards the tracks, looking down them towards home, to where they are swallowed and disappear fifty feet away. She is accustoming herself to the twilight when his bike approaches behind her.

Turning to face the whir of wheels, she is afraid that he will run her over, even though she is nowhere near to being in the path of his trajectory. Mostly, her reaction is from surprise and slight annoyance at a man actively riding a bicycle down a train platform. This would never be allowed in the crowded London stations, but she reminds herself of the deserted Leucher’s station and tries to avoid calling out can’t you get off and walk it?! in admonishment. He is wearing a dark jacket and tweed hat. Despite being quite tall, she assumes he is old and therefore immune to corrections.

He drifts closer and she finds that she is incorrect. He is young, and quite handsome. Amused with her surprise, he winks. She is now even further taken aback.

*

Once, I literally ran into him in the middle of the park. I was sitting on a bench, and I look up, and there he is in the middle of a conversation with someone. And he sees me and does a double-take.

A little later, I turn to my right, and there he is sitting on the bench next to me.

He’s going on a bike trip with his girlfriend. He said he wonders how long it will go; it might be cut short if they’re not getting along. And he thinks it may not be what they need right now because they’re already going through a rough patch.

I hear you. But listen, travel brings attention to all the difficult fissures in a relationship that familiarity can gloss over. So maybe, even if it’s bad, this will end up being a good thing.

Either way, I think it’s exactly what you need. Because travelling with someone is an exercise in love and forgiveness.

*

There is so much more to the story. There always is. Fragmentary episodes, small connectors, doppelgangers, and actually passing each other on the street. Marriages. Drifting contexts. The threads get looser.

I go back to riding trains, but I don’t write letters to people on the platforms. I write them in my head. And then the moment passes, and the story is all that’s left.

*

Prayer
Galway Kinnell

Whatever happens. Whatever
“what is” is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

*

Love,
M.

If I die too soon

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Notes from “From the Heart” a collection from Women of Letters

26 April 2016
4:19PM
Sydney

T. —

I’m being productive. Things are getting done. I’m currently going through all of my photos and rooting out the ones I need, the duplicates I can delete, the notes I can jot down, the photos that are unnecessary. I’ve taken a lot of photos of books. Covers of books: to read, to read, to remember to read. Pages of books: this poem. This quote. This photograph. This godly image.

So, today I’ve been a scribe. It’s one of my favourite jobs. Self-appointed, of course. Usually I take a book with post-it flags, flay it open with my bamboo book holder, and discern its inner-most parts. But sometimes I don’t have the luxury of time on my side. Some books need to go back to the library too soon. Some books are actually gifts — like this one. This was a Christmas gift for my aunt in California, and I read it on the plane out to visit her. I didn’t have time to notate the things I wanted to keep. So, snap- snap – click of the shutter, and these quotes end in a stockroom of an iPhoto folder until I remember to transcribe them.

Today, I thought, for the very first time: what am I doing this for? I enjoy keeping the parts of books that made me laugh, that made me think, or made me question. But I don’t often refer back to them. Only if someone I know is reading a book I’ve read, something I have notes on. And today, I thought: if I died, would any of this matter?

I don’t often think about death. That’s a lie I just told you to make you feel better. I think about it frequently, the way a philosopher turns a familiar problem around and around to look at it from new angles. My friend B is moving to Melbourne; he has a prospective new roommate who throws “Death Dinner Parties.” She invites all of her friends around to talk about Death.

I kind of love that. I want to go to one.

*

I’ve been stockpiling Brain Picking book recommendations to read. In light of what we’re talking about today, I really want to read this one:

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Cry, Heart, But Never Break. Maria Popova describes it thus:

Now comes a fine addition to the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books about making sense of death — the crowning jewel of them all, even, and not only because it bears what might be the most beautiful children’s book title ever conceived: Cry, Heart, But Never Break (public library) by beloved Danish children’s book author Glenn Ringtved and illustrator Charlotte Pardi, translated into English by Robert Moulthrop.

Although Ringtved is celebrated for his humorous and mischievous stories, this contemplative tale sprang from the depths of his own experience — when his mother was dying and he struggled to explain what was happening to his young children, she offered some words of comfort: “Cry, Heart, but never break.” It was the grandmother’s way of assuring the children that the profound sadness of loss is to be allowed rather than resisted, then folded into the wholeness of life, which continues to unfold. — Brain Pickings.

*

I’ve been thinking about starting a blog series to document my attempt to read the whole way through my 1000+ to-read bookshelf on Goodreads. Some questions I have for myself: am I being fair to the books I live with, the ones sitting on my shelves that are asking for attention? Why do I only have two eyes and one brain? Why can’t I have four eyes and as many brains? If I die too soon, will this have been a life well-read? If I take notes and no one ever reads them, are they still a worthy cause?

The answer is: yes, yes, always yes.

Today I wrote postcards instead of buying new books. I mean, I bought new books, too. But they were for writing workshops. So, employment. I didn’t buy new books for myself today. I wrote instead. Just to clarify.

M

Always, this wanting

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April 2016. Sydney Harbour: Rose Bay –> Circular Quay

22 April 2016
12:14 PM
Sydney, Australia

T.–

I have so much I want to say. Too much. I’ve been trying to write to you for ages. Email drafts. Bits of letters everywhere. I’m sorry I missed your birthday. I saw it coming, I kept writing. It passed. I tore up letters, misplaced others. The email drafts grow longer and longer. I watch time passing. It passes.

But you’re here. You found me again, and you have stories to share. And so do I, I suppose. Except the only way I can start to unpack those stories right now are holding them up against your words. Can I borrow some of yours for a while? To jumpstart my own?

*

What are your anchors now, I wonder. Has living in another country finally become another piece of your life falling into place, or is it still something you’re trying to figure out?

I’ve been asking myself the exact same thing. I went to go see Brooklyn with my friend G., and sat scribbling in my book the whole time. I’m not Irish. I haven’t moved to Brooklyn. I don’t have the same struggles as an immigrant unused to certain cultures, or being someone unable to go home again. I’m too able to go home again. And yet, I’ve been thinking: doesn’t the idea of being an ex-pat, an immigrant, require you to have a home you’ve departed from? I think I have many homes, and none, simultaneously. And I’m always leaving them.

We walked down the street last week and I said to A: “We fucking live here. Sometimes I forget to be amazed that we live at the bottom of the world, half a globe away from anything we’ve known.” Sometimes it gets too normal. I tell people we haven’t lived here long, but last night someone asked me when we arrived. “A year ago,” I said. He said, “Ah, so it’s not an entirely recent move then.”

I wanted to say: It is. It’s so recent. I don’t know anything about how to live here. There are seeds of familiarity and normality and everydayness, but they crop up where I don’t want them to be. And they don’t take root where I need them. And a year is never long enough to get over missing what we left. I wasn’t here for that entire year. Not really here. Sometimes I still don’t think I am.

I just nodded, “Yes, I guess you’re right.”

I don’t know whether anything is really falling into place right now. And at the same time, a lot of things are coming together. It’s like finding the right puzzle pieces, but not going so far as to connect them to each other.

*

We’ve been mostly quiet, too, and I am hoping, with all my heart, that your silence means you are having the time of your life, that you are outside and meeting the world.

Most of the time, my silence is a failure of finding the right words to say. I know this should make me more empathetic towards the other people in my life who are showing up like this, in silence. It’s not. Sometimes I think it’s making me less patient. If I’m struggling with this, I damn well want to see other people struggling with it too.

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April 10th, a year ago. Still the same silence. Is it enough?

*

I have no idea how you do this—constantly pack your bags and decide what to take with you and what to leave behind.

How do I do this? Terribly. So ineffectively. We moved 25 boxes to Australia. Half of that stuff, we shouldn’t have paid to bring with us. It would have been cheaper to throw it out of the window, not pay to ship it, and just buy new things down under.

I asked A. what percentage of my books he thinks I’ve read. He answered with a question: “20%?” The truth is: I don’t know, but I want to count them. I want to make graphs with statistics, and I want to hold myself accountable. I want to use the things I have and give away the things I don’t use.

Always, this wanting. Looking around at the things surrounding me, and the wanting to purge. To let it all go. And then I start to sort, I start to hold these things in my hands again, and I’m reminded: I love them.

If I love them, why am I ignoring them? This question poses itself a lot these days. And not just in reference to me.

*

Off to another adventure it seems. Here’s to our attempts at making our world bigger.

I went back to Scotland in January because my grandfather died. The funeral was down south, in a village church outside of Bath in the town where he lived. But I wanted to get back to Scotland on that trip, and I had to make it by January 5th, which would have been his birthday. He hadn’t been back to Scotland in years, and I know it broke his heart. He talked about it a lot when we spoke on the phone in the last few months. He wrote about it after the Scottish referendum (in which I voted Yes, for him, and for myself):

“What I fear now is that, unless my health improves, I won’t see  and feel Scotland again. That thought makes me quite sad.

I just wanted to share that with you.”

I have a lot of emails from him in my inbox. I’ve wanted to read through them since he died. I haven’t been able to. It’s a place I’m having a hard time meeting myself.

When I went back to Scotland, I met up with a lot of friends. I obviously hadn’t seen any of them since we moved to Sydney. It was a complex week: to come to back in the middle of a Scottish winter. To allow the rain and desolate scenery to be a backdrop for my grief. To know my grief was not just for Granddad, but for all the people I’ve spent the better part of a year missing. To come back to all of them, and in my grief, to not be able to hold all of the feelings properly. To withdraw. To try to recenter. To try to make sense of what the fuck is holding my life together, when everything feels like it’s spinning apart.

I’ve had a certain journey with R. since I left. It’s been difficult for both of us, I think, for many distinct reasons. I don’t know why I thought coming back would make it better, but I was disappointed when it seemed to make it worse.

The day before I left Edinburgh, I went back to sing at St. Giles. R. asked me whether it was strange to be back in Scotland. I thought about saying, “No, I’ve missed it so much, it feels like coming back and regrowing my whole skeleton.” Which would have been true. But there are other things that are equally true, so I said: “Yes. It feels strange.”

He said, “I feel like your world is smaller than mine.” At face value, I almost took it like an insult, and I think he knew that. He added, “What I mean is: you know people all over the world, and you are used to travel, and you live in different places, and all of those connections shrink your world so that it’s easier to cross it. To bridge the distance. My world feels so vast. And really far away.”

I have been feeling so many things about this small and vast world. Like a microscope oscillating in and out of focus.

But I really understood what he meant. I think you’re making your world smaller. In a very good way. Strengthening the muscle tissue that bridges the distance.

*

More soon.

M.

3 Things and a Question

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6 September 2014
1:44 pm 
Edinburgh

T.– 

My grandfather died in 2011, while I was living in Amsterdam with Andrew. Andrew never got to meet him in person, but they did share a conversation over Skype before Gran died. It was the last time I saw him smile. I had never spoken to him on the computer before.

When I was in middle school (probably about 11 or 12 years old), my grandparents came to visit us in New Jersey. We were in the car on the way home from school. Gran turned around from the front passenger seat and said, “I want to know three things you learned today, and a question you still have.”

*

Over the years, I’ve kept that as a writing device. In college, I finished three notebooks full of those types of daily reflections. I think, for the next while, I’d like to use it here. Three things I’ve learned, and one question I still have. 

  1. I’ve learned that I have hundreds of books in this house. 285 books, exactly. I never meant to collect books here. I still have hundreds of books at my mother’s house, and I’ve always assumed that was the bulk of them. But, as we’re getting ready to move flats in the next six months, I look around and realize how many books I actually have. 
  2. I’ve learned that I haven’t read any of these books, proportionately. I keep buying new books. I keep taking books out from the library. But these books remain unread, and sitting here, and I feel I have neglected them. I don’t even know where all of them came from, or why I’m keeping them.
    .
  3. I’ve learned that I like to have space around me. I love books. I really love books. But years and years ago I promised myself that the only books on my shelves would be the ones I was currently reading, and the ones I adored and had to keep. I’ve already attempted to stop collecting books for the sake of having pages all around me. Now, I want to have space. I want to share these books with other people. But in the meantime, I want to read them all.

So this is my mission: I’m not buying one more book at least through the end of the year. I’ve set myself a goal of reading 50 books for 2014 on Goodreads, to push myself forward into reading through these shelves. I have this fear that we’re going to move, and these books will still be in boxes because we won’t have the shelf space for them. That’s something I have never wanted.

The question I’m left with: when will I start to retain the lessons I learn, instead of having to relearn them all over again

I’m off for a cup of tea and a book.

Good afternoon,
M

Margin Notes and Ephemera

Mulholland Books / Photo by Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

Mulholland Books / Photo by Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

3 April 2014
5:09 PM
Manila

M.–

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst sounds like a book we would like. From here:

“The book is actually two (or more) books in one: Ship of Theseus, purportedly written by (fictional) author V.M. Straka, and another story that plays out in handwritten margin notes and ephemera stuffed into that book’s pages.

Every page is crammed with notes from a male graduate student and a female college senior who are using the margins to piece together the mysteries of the tome’s enigmatic author.

The marginalia will be a delight to any book lover who has spent hours combing through the secrets pencilled in books at antique shops or dusty used bookstores.”

You can view more images from the link.

Meanwhile, I decided to make a list in my current read:

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

T.