Things that go crash in the night: a car accident

Crash in the nightThe initial shuddering crash — more like a crack, really, like thunder — as the car meets the telegraph pole wakes me. My heart is thumping and I’m expecting the roof to fall in. My bedroom is full of light.

It doesn’t take me long to work out what’s happened. Looking out my window, I can see there are people there helping. There is no urgency about them, so I gather no one is hurt. I am home alone. Alone in the not-so-dark wearing a flimsy nightie. The first night home alone of what will end up being just more than five weeks. I feel somehow vulnerable and useless.

And then the process of clearing up, which I watch on and off, guiltily, through a crack in the curtains in my bedroom. I cannot see much, without my contact lenses in. Just broad strokes, no detail. Police lights, redirecting of traffic. A tow truck with its flashing lights and loud engine sounds. The creak of broken metal. No ambulance.

I lay awake for hours and hours, trying to slow my breath, worrying about my reluctance to go outside, thinking I should have. Knowing that if it had been me in that car, I’d have needed someone to come and help me. Then reminding myself that I’d checked that someone else had gone to help, that there had been no ambulance. And then starting the process all over again. Eventually, I sleep; a sleep disturbed by dark dreams I can’t quite remember when I wake.

In the morning when I leave the house, there is debris from the crash scattered all across the footpath in front of my house, and all over my front porch. There are skid marks on the road. I wonder about the circumstances of the crash, wonder what happened before it, after it. And still I am disturbed by the tension between my feeling of intense vulnerability in the night and my desire to help, not sure the right feeling won out. This will continue to bother me for weeks, months.

Stories and objects: a lost bracelet

Watch locketWe are talking about the frying pan I’m about to buy when the woman behind the counter notices my necklace, a locket.

That’s lovely, she says. Is there anything in it?

I open it to show her the watch inside. My parents gave it to me some years ago, I tell her.

Her face softens immediately. Oh, it’s lovely. I bet you love it. Gifts like that are special, aren’t they?

She begins to tell me about gifts, of jewellery in particular, her now deceased parents gave her. She is one of those women who have worked in a department store for twenty years or more: immaculate blonde hair, just a little too much foundation, long manicured fingernails, rings with big stones on at least two fingers on each hand, just the right amount of some age-appropriate fashionable perfume. As she talks, I notice suddenly how small she is—she comes up to my chest, at most.

She tells me the story of her falling on the way home from the train station one day and losing a beloved bracelet her parents had given her.

Half way through the story, just at the part where she injured herself falling over and walked the twenty minutes home only to discover the bracelet was gone, she starts laughing at herself failing the necessary steps to put my frying pan transaction through because she is distracted by her storytelling.

Hang on, let me put this through first, she says. I laugh too. We finish the transaction and fiddle about sticking receipts to boxes and deciding about whether I need a bag. I am about to leave when she remembers—

Wait, let me tell you the rest of my story. Please do, I say.

When she realised she had lost the bracelet—which she never usually wore to work, but this one day, of course—she called her Dad in tears. At this time her mother was in a nursing home, but her Dad still lived in their home. Her Dad listened and soothed her distress with all the appropriate words. The next day when she could walk okay again she went back to the spot she had fallen, but the bracelet, predictably, was gone.

Some time later, she went to visit her father at his home—I still get teary thinking about this now, she tells me—and at the end of her visit her father remembered suddenly, and disappeared to his bedroom. When he came back, he had a small jewellery bag. In it was a replacement bracelet. Not the same kind, nothing like it, she tells me—he probably wasn’t involved in buying the first one, even. But this one, this one was even more special than the first, and she would never wear it to work.

Oh, Dad, I say to her, touched.

I know, she says. I miss my Dad. He was the kind of man who’d be thinking about whose birthday was coming up in the next month or two, so he could be sure they’d have a gift. He loved giving gifts. She gazes out past my shoulder. But I should let you go, she says.

And I do go, but I thank her for sharing the story with me, feeling that what she shared was so much more than a story about a lost bracelet. What she showed me, a complete stranger, was grief. Not the kind we usually think of—sobbing, distressed, wild—but an everyday kind. The kind where a person is suddenly reminded of a hole that’s been left.

Walking back through the department store with my frying pan under my arm, on my way back to work, I am, for a few moments at least, a little less overwhelmed and irritated by department stores and shopping centres and crowded places where people seem to forget that other people are moving in those places too. Instead, I am aware, in a way that makes my skin tingle, of what it is that all these people might carry around with them that stops them from seeing other people, and I am reminded of this speech by David Foster Wallace about the world and people and changing our attitude to others. And this reminder, perhaps, more than the story itself, lovely though it was, is why I will remember that small blonde woman’s story, and the image I have of her elderly father holding out for her a small velvet bag containing a bracelet.

Hearing other people’s stories

Clear blue skyI am sitting at a tram stop on a sunny Sunday morning, reading a book, when he approaches me.

Excuse me, he says, which tram do I take to get to Bridge Road?

From here, I tell him, you can catch the number 75 tram. I’m catching that tram too.

He sits near to me on the cold metal seat and tells me he’s going to a church on Bridge Road, because his usual church is closed today. He is a thin man, probably in his forties. His face has softened around various piercings—two in his eyebrows, one in his lip. His lips are large and soft and seem occasionally to get in the way of his speech. His eyes are blue and clear.

He hasn’t been home since last night, he says. I smile. But what he says next surprises me. He hasn’t been home because last night he found his housemate dead and now he can’t face the house.

His face falters as he tells me this.

They tried to make me go home, he says, but I couldn’t. Could you?

No, I say. And I’m really sorry to hear that’s happened. I don’t know who he means by ‘they’ but I don’t ask.

He is on his way to the church on Bridge Road because a friend of his is the minister there, and he’s hoping she’ll be able to offer him some support.

The tram comes and we both get on. He tells me about his night, about how various Melbourne hospitals refused to help him, about how his Dad refused to let him stay, even knowing what happened. He tells me about his troubles with depression and suicidal thoughts. That the only person he knows who offered him a place to sleep is someone he doesn’t trust.

The book I was reading when he interrupted me at the tram stop was Hugh Mackay’s ‘The Good Life’, about how to lead a life that is morally good. My life, of course, like everyone’s, is full of moments where I fail at this, where I could be better. This man, I am absolutely sure, comes across many people in his day-to-day life who fail at being good in the moments they are interacting with him. I can see it in his face. He probably fails at this too. Years ago a friend told me that she thought I attracted more than my fair share of crazies, and certainly my interaction with this man is not a particularly unusual occurrence in my life. But I wonder whether it’s less that people with issues are attracted to me and more that, for better or worse, I find it difficult to turn away in that first moment of eye contact.

Suddenly it is my stop. I wish him good luck, say that I hope his friend can help him. He tells me he hopes I have a good day. I wonder to myself how his life will play out from here, whether he will get the help he needs. I wonder what series of events in his life lead him to here, telling a complete stranger on a tram the story of an awful night in his life. I step out into the sunshine, but the image of the clear blue eyes in his troubled face stays with me.

Finding time: hunting for sticks

Sticks at feetCrunching through the dry undergrowth of a patch of trees in parklands close to my house, I am peering at all the sticks under my boots, looking for the straightest and strongest ones. I hear a loud crunch and a crack from several metres away; the friend I’ve recruited to help me has found something. There are more cracks and crunches and the rustling of leaves — he’s obviously found a pile of them. I crouch down to inspect a pile of sticks and twigs at my feet. Above me a bird calls out again and again in alarm — or perhaps warning — and flits from tree to tree. The air around me smells like damp eucalyptus, after rain earlier in the day.

“It’s okay,” I tell the bird. “I’ll be out of your way soon.”

The sticks are mostly unsuitable: too brittle, too bent. But there are one or two that are okay. I add them to the collection I’m already carrying, and clamber out of the bushy area to find my friend.

He’s found a collection of larger branches that have fallen from a tree. He holds up the ones he’s picked for my approval, and then breaks up a few bigger branches in the pile for their parts. We carry the collection back to a pile we’ve been making this last hour or so on the edge of a garden bed near where his car is parked. We take stock. There are lots of larger sticks, but we need more smaller sticks. Leaving the pile, we head off again.

~

It’s been windy these last few weeks in Melbourne; the winds that come with the change of season at springtime. For much of that time, I’ve been on the lookout for sticks in parks and under trees on roadsides, anticipating several outings for stick hunting. I want the sticks to build things with in my backyard: structures for beans and peas and cucumbers to grow up, stakes for tomatoes and other plants. The plants are growing steadily in my little hothouse, and I’ve been vaguely planning the kinds of structures I’ll need to construct.

I’ve approached the building of my garden coming into this summer season a little differently to previous years. Perhaps because of some other reading I’ve been doing on waste, I’ve found myself trying to think of ways I can make or build things rather than nipping down to the hardware store for bamboo stakes. It’s certainly not that I’m aiming to build everything in the garden from sticks and things I’ve found, but the reading on waste has somewhat shifted my perspective on the usefulness of the things around me. And now that I’m on the lookout for this kind of stuff, I’m seeing it everywhere. Which is to say that I’m seeing usefulness and abundance everywhere. It’s really rather wonderful.

Because it’s not possible for me to carry a giant pile of sticks home on my own (nor, I anticipate, build the planned structures from them), I’ve had to ask for help, and my wonderful friends have been very generous. And this is the other somewhat unexpected outcome of approaching things this way: I have been reminded of the generosity of my friends, and, perhaps even more than that, the stick gathering has been an opportunity for me to spend extended stretches of time with them. Talking about life, solving problems, being serious, being silly, laughing.

~

Stick hunting sunshineLate in the afternoon the day before I went stick gathering with my friend with the car, my housemate and I went for a long wander around our suburb, also looking for sticks. We were limited to what we could carry home, but we still managed to gather quite a lot. Along with smaller bundles of sticks, she ended up with what she referred to as her “Gandalf stick”, and I ended up with a long branch I carried over my shoulder, which required some careful manoeuvring to stop from catching on things. My housemate said she hoped that one of the people glancing strangely at us as we passed them with our load would ask us what we were doing with the sticks. (Sadly, no one did.) As we traipsed home with our strange cargo, the springtime sun sinking, making everything glow, blinking from behind buildings and trees as we walked, I couldn’t help but feel like this time was something magical. 

A giant pile of sticksThe pile of sticks from both these trips sits now in my backyard, waiting for me to start building. Various friends have promised to help with this job — and with other things in the garden — and I am somewhat overwhelmed, in the best way possible, by how amazing the people in my life are. I can’t wait to share the (literal) fruits of this labour with them later in the season.

Passing time: conversations with gardeners

NastursiumThe garden is on a familiar street around the corner from a house I lived in years ago; I walk past it most weekends on my way to and from places I need to be. I don’t remember it from when I lived around the corner, although I’m sure the same people have lived in that house for decades. But in the years since I lived nearby I’ve become the kind of person who maps out walking journeys by the gardens I know I can peer at as I amble.

The house itself disappears behind the garden and its rambling structures; two large patches divided by the path that leads to the front door. Trellises, bean poles, shade cloth, chicken wire. Structures that will be covered in green come summer.

The gardener is standing out the front, leaning on one of the brick fence pillars, resting his walking stick there. As I approach in my noisy boots, he turns to look at me and I say hello. He smiles broadly and returns the greeting.

What are you growing? I ask him, stopping in front of the fence.

Tomato, he says, his Italian accent thick. He comes up to my shoulder, or thereabouts, and is wearing grey tracksuit pants held up by braces. It’s a warm day, so under the braces he wears only a plain white t-shirt. On his feet he wears slippers. Beans, he says, and gestures to what will be a wall of beans in a few months.

Is this garlic? I ask him. He smiles and nods. And fennel?

Yes, yes. All this, he says, sweeping his arm out to include the whole garden, one hundred dollars of manure. One hundred dollars, that’s all, for all this. If the weather is good, lots of food; if not, maybe not so much.

Let’s hope the weather’s good this season, I say.

It passes the time, he says. Passes the time.

It does, I say, and laugh. I tell him I walk past often and admire his garden. He had broccoli in last time I saw it.

Take some of this, he says, and points to the giant parsley plant in front of us. People take it all the time, he tells me, but the plant still grows well.

I tell him thank you but I have a large parsley plant at home myself.

You garden? he asks me. I nod. You have a house? How big is your yard?

About half the size of your front yard, I tell him. So I can’t grow quite as much. But I have herbs and have sprouted some tomatoes and beans and other things for summer.

It passes the time, he says, and smiles. I nod and smile back.

I’d better keep going, I tell him, but maybe I’ll see you when I walk past next week.

It passes the time, he says and rests his elbows on the pillar next to his walking stick.

It passes the time, I agree, enjoy the rest of your day.

Thank you, he calls out after me as I wander off down the street in my noisy boots, smiling.

Am I falling? On fear and failure and the shame of bodies

It’s not until my skis touch the ground at the top of the chair lift and it sinks in that I have to stand up and ski away from the lift that I realise how terrified I am. Down the tiny slope that leads away from the lift, I pick up more speed than I am ready for and do exactly what you’re not supposed to: crouch down. I fall. I haven’t got my gloves on yet, and I graze several of my fingers in the icy snow. It stings. But more than anything, I’m embarrassed. I haven’t even actually done any skiing yet and I’ve already fallen over.

20130829-180042.jpg The slope — a beginners’ slope — brings more frustration and shame. I am most definitely the least experienced skier in my lesson group. This is not surprising: I haven’t skied since I was a teenager, and I was a novice then. The teacher is trying to show us how to execute turns. I just fall over every time. We get just a third of the way down the slope, and I have fallen over about eight times. Then I slide backwards across the mountain, off the snow and into the grass. The whole lesson group is watching me. I cry. Just a little; the hot tears of frustration and shame. I remember this feeling about skiing from when I was five and ran into a fence in my ski lesson. I cannot do something that everybody else can. They have all watched me fail miserably.

This moment, where I have to ask the ski instructor just to give me a minute to collect myself, makes me think of my beginners’ yoga students. It reminds me that it’s possible they feel this shame and frustration when they can’t do something I’m asking them to; that it’s important I always remember to approach a student’s difficulty with the compassion the ski instructor is showing me now.

~

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about falling. For the last few weeks, I’ve started my day by rolling out of bed and standing on my head for a short while. In the lamplight of my bedroom, I rest my weight on my elbows, forearms and a fist I’ve made with my hands. The top of my head touches the floor lightly, and I walk my toes closer to my face so my torso is perpendicular to the floor, hips up in the air. I lift one leg, then the other. Often I wobble and my feet touch the wall behind my head. As I hold myself there, reaching my feet towards the ceiling, I play, slowly, with my balance. What happens if I tilt my pelvis so my lower back lengthens a little? What happens if I tilt it the other way? Some days I really notice the comparative weakness in my left shoulder, and my legs and feet sway a little from left to right. Some days I am steady, and this usually surprises me, because most days I’m wobbly. As I wobble around upside down, I ask myself: am I falling?

Mostly, the answer is no. I sway a little, I adjust. I sway a little, I adjust. The balance takes focus. If I wander off in my mind, I lose it. I need to bring my feet down or they’ll fall down.

It’s the same on the ski slopes. That shifting of balance. The focus. Lean away from the slope, put your weight in the outside foot, or in the toes if you’re facing downhill. Lean the way you don’t want to fall.

It fascinates me: balance, falling. The fear. When I’m skiing, I’m afraid I’ll fall and get my skis caught up in one another and twist my ankle or knee or hip. I’m afraid I’ll wobble my already unstable hips out of alignment, because I know how easy it seems to be for me to do that just in regular life. I’m afraid of the pain, I guess. Which is a fairly reasonable fear, except that it so often means I focus on that when I should be noticing where my weight is, adjusting where necessary and thereby avoiding a fall.

Slowly, I get better at skiing. I fall less and less. And when I do fall, it’s mostly strategic, because I’m aware of the limits of my skills and would prefer to fall myself than plough down a small child. I get better at noticing the minute changes I need to make in the direction of my skis and the weight in my hips and legs to turn a certain way. I notice how much more difficult it is for me to get my left side to hold my weight than my right; how much more difficult again this is when I start to get tired. Or if I let my mind wander too much. Being present just in that moment is immensely useful for balance.

I am not, by any means, a good skier, but I do okay. And that’s enough.

For about the same amount of time that I’ve been doing headstands each morning, I’ve also been reading Illness, by Havi Carel. I will, at some point, write more here about this book and its ideas, because it’s having a profound effect on how I view my own chronic illness, and the periods of greater or lesser health within that, but for now I want only to mention one idea that returned to me as I alternately fell and skied down the slopes. Carel writes about how a serious illness — chronic or otherwise — can bring with it a sense that one’s body has failed them, betrayed them. That because of this failing in this one part of myself, I am somehow not enough. This is certainly how I’ve felt about my own body because of illness at various points. And I wonder if, on a different scale, that is part of what I was ashamed of when I kept falling and falling and falling that first time down the slope. Whether that is part of what any person might be ashamed of when they’re asked to do something with their physical body that proves difficult or impossible.

Because, to a certain degree, we are our physical bodies and their capabilities and limits. We are our illnesses, our falls, our tears of shame. We are also that steady headstand that comes along every now and then, that brilliantly executed turn on the skis.

Of course, we’re also not any of those things. We both are and are not our dys/functionality. This is something I have to remind myself on a regular basis. It’s all about perspective.

And so it is about perspective with falling. Perhaps when I’m standing on my head I am actually falling most of the time; it’s just that I catch myself. And when I’m skiing, I am, of course, actually falling down a hill the whole time, even if I’m not falling over. It’s a sort-of-controlled falling, or at least it’s a falling I’m sort-of-almost comfortable with most of the time.

~

20130829-180017.jpg Several days into our week away, on a day where the snow is too slushy to ski, my brother and I go for a long walk. We talk, among other things, about falling. About how falling is not so bad anyway. Yes, sometimes you hurt yourself when you fall over, but mostly the physical injury is minor; the injury to the ego is greater. It’s embarrassing. We talk about how facing a fear of falling can teach you so much. About how falling can teach you so much.

This is something I think about often with physical activity, that it so often brings up questions about self and identity and capability and worth. I can stand on my head, and that makes me feel capable and strong. But I am at best a novice skier, and that makes me feel small. There’s something to learn from each feeling, if I’m up to looking at it a little closer.

20130829-180004.jpg As my brother and I talk about being afraid of falling, he jumps up onto a pole running along the side of a road, and walks along it, balancing. He talks about the relationship between balance and falling and play. We trudge through snow in inappropriate shoes, and I am conscious of the risk of slipping, but we go ahead anyway. We discover a small creek, we climb on rocks, we peer at plants. At one point we come across a snowman someone built earlier in the day. I take pictures of moss and rocks, he throws snowballs at me. It reminds me of adventures we had as children. Adventure, triumph, play, fear of falling, failure, and shame are all so tied up in one another. Shining in the midday winter sun, the snow crunches under our feet, a wonder and a danger all at once.

Traces of things from the past

Ceiling from the floor In the mornings, I roll out of bed and onto the floor, where I breathe and move my body through a series of strange shapes and stand still and move again and sit and lie down and breathe. Some mornings my breath is difficult, sometimes my back or my hips or my neck and shoulders hurt. Most mornings my bedroom carpet smells like the dog who used to live in the house with the people who lived here before I did.

My room is small. Over time, I’ve worked out where I need to stand at the beginning of a sun salute so I don’t end up kicking my bedside table half way through the sequence, where on the floor I need to lie so I’ve room to let my legs drop to the floor on my right side and then my left for a lying twist. I’ve worked out these same things about how my body fits into the space in each of my bedrooms for the last eight years or so. In most of those houses, I’ve also practiced in various shared spaces: the lounge room, sometimes the kitchen. The feel of carpet, floor boards or kitchen tiles under hand and foot; the layer of dust that gathers under furniture; the way hip bones, knees, shoulder blades dig into and are bruised or not by various floor surfaces; the way light plays on the ceilings and light fittings — these are things I know about the houses in which I’ve lived, these are the ways I remember those places.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Buddhist concept of ‘samskaras’, or ‘traces of things from the past’. Which is probably another way of saying that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own past. I recently had an essay about the traces of places in memory and the concept of ‘home’ published on Tabula Rasa. I’ve often wondered about how much what we think of as home is really just about familiarity, or whether there are also places for individuals that feel genuinely more like home than others, regardless of how much time a person has spent in that place. How much of ‘home’ is inherent and how much is learned?

My thinking about samskaras and place and home has done strange things to time. I’ve not been entirely confident about where I am in the week, and often where exactly I am in the timeline of my life. It’s a sentiment I’ve repeated several times in the last year, and I wonder whether it’s the effect of making a change in my life like moving interstate, and everything that’s come with that. Moving back to a place I’ve lived before has perhaps amplified that weirdness in time. It’s pushed me to see again past versions of myself, and to try and integrate both past Sophies and present Sophie into some kind of coherent narrative of identity. It’s an odd process. Not entirely unpleasant, but definitely weird.

Another way of thinking about samskaras is to think of them as habits — in doing, thinking, responding — that have formed because of the stuff of life. Of course, periods of great trauma or stress or joy leave traces, but so too does the mundane, everyday stuff of our lives. So it makes sense that a period of transition or big change like moving interstate, where many or most of one’s everyday habits are shed, would have the potential to shine light on some of the other habits or traces.

The shake-up of everyday rhythms and habits might also explain why time is so strange for me right now. In her post on Claudia Hammond’s book, Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, Maria Popova summarises Hammond’s theory about why a good holiday feels at the time like it’s flying by, but long when you look back on it later.

“…the Holiday Paradox has to do with the quality and concentration of new experiences, especially in contrast to familiar daily routines. During ordinary life, time appears to pass at a normal pace, and we use markers like the start of the workday, weekends, and bedtime to assess the rhythm of things. But once we go on vacation, the stimulation of new sights, sounds, and experiences injects a disproportionate amount of novelty that causes these two types of time to misalign. The result is a warped perception of time.”

Change, they say, is as good as a holiday. I wonder whether that’s because, like a holiday, change injects this novelty into life. It gives us an opportunity to see things from a different perspective. And if, as research suggests, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are so important to our wellbeing, then what a great opportunity this is.

Something I love about the concept of samskaras is that it’s entirely neutral. There is no judgement; the traces are just there. Whether or not a habit is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is a judgment value we place on it after it’s noticed. The idea in noticing is to have some idea of what we’re carrying around with us, because those things inevitably affect the way we think and behave in the present. They affect who we are. Figuring out what in that luggage (or is it baggage?) is helpful and what isn’t is a tricky process though.

I remembered the other day that when I moved to Sydney from Melbourne all those years ago, I wrote about packing memories into boxes. (But I also wrote about packing ideas for the future into boxes… and then abandoning them. Clearly moving and packing was a powerful metaphor for me.) My life at that time was incredibly confusing. I’d been through a particularly heartbreaking breakup, immediately after which I’d decided to move interstate. This meant quitting my job, then having to find a new one; it meant meeting lots of new people and learning to live with a whole new set of people. I had to get to know a new city. I felt like I had to get to know myself again too.

It’s been useful for me to remember that time now and how confusing it was for me. Partly because this time around I’m not hurting anywhere near as much as I was then, and partly because it shows me that perhaps, for me at least, prolonged confusion is just part of the process of making big changes.

But now, instead of figuratively packing and unpacking boxes, I’m breathing and standing and folding forward and bending backwards and twisting and sitting and lying down and breathing. Having that thread, the yoga, has become, unexpectedly, a way of remembering what it’s like to take up space in the world I inhabit now as well as what it felt like to do so in times and places I’ve left behind. It’s a way of remembering what it felt like — in every sense of that phrase — to be me at those times, and of noticing what it feels like to be me now. It’s a way of feeling time and all the things it changes and all the things it doesn’t and to see that things just go on even if it’s not always easy or straightforward. It helps me see that at some point I’ll be looking back on this present, perhaps as I roll around on the floor in some new place, and be seeing the traces, the samskaras, left by what’s happening now.

EWF blog post ~ Breathing, anxiety, writing

My next post is up on the Emerging Writers’ Festival blog this week. It’s about the relationship between breathing, writing and anxiety or distress.

~

20130717-192416.jpg

I am standing in the kitchen, in front of the toaster and the kettle, waiting for the toast to pop, when I realise I’m barely breathing. It’s a cold morning, and I can feel the cool floorboards through my thin socks and the colder-still granite bench top under my restless finger pads. My breath is shallow and quick and maybe even a little bit painful.

I start to count to four as I inhale, and again to four as I exhale — a familiar exercise and one I run yoga students through at the beginning of every class I teach. It helps, slowly. My breath begins to slow down, to feel calmer, even though I’m still aware of the tightness in the muscles between my ribs and in my belly.

This is a very distinct memory, although I’m sure it’s actually cobbled together from a number of different occasions where I’ve been dealing with some sort of anxiety and noticed it in my breathing. I know it’s happened often, because I remember so many different sets of small details. I remember exactly this situation, but with bare feet on a tiled floor, for example, and with shod feet wandering through a park. I breathe this way, and have to struggle to calm my breath, when I have deadlines looming or angsty life events.

To me, how someone breathes is one of the most intimate things you can know about a person. There are three reasons I think this: you have to be quite close to someone to notice how they’re breathing; breathing is quite literally the first and most enduring way in which we draw the outside world into ourselves; and I know enough about the anatomy, physiology and psychology of breathing to see how it’s useful as an indicator of how well someone is coping with their emotions.

~

Read more here.

Priorities, rest and breathing

This morning I lay in bed, curled up in a ball, just exactly warm enough and aware of the chill in the air outside my little cocoon. I lay there under the weight of several layers of blanket thinking about life in all its variety; about the dear friends of mine who’ve just welcomed their first child, about the three different friends I have who are soon to move interstate (to Melbourne—hurrah!) or overseas, about the friends I know who are struggling with overwork or relationship woes. And then I thought about my own life, with all its recent changes and challenges and sadnesses and joys. I thought about how life is always in a state of flux—it’s just that we seem to notice it more at some times than others. And about how life never seems to turn out how anyone thought it would, but how much richer than imagination, good or bad, reality is, if we let it be.

And then I thought again about my friends’ little baby, who is just a week old, partly because I’ve already been clucky for years and thinking about babies is something I don’t seem to be able to help doing, and partly because I was amazed to think that he still has all of this ahead of him. This life.

I remember the moment when I was a child that I realised each of the billions of people in the world had their own life events unfolding around them and an inner life trying to make sense of that. I remember not being quite sure what to do with that realisation.

In the last few weeks, for an essay I’m writing, I’ve been learning more about the anatomy, physiology and psychology of breathing. The breath is altered by all sorts of things, and in turn that altered breath changes our biochemistry. Life changes the way we breathe, and breathing changes the way we approach life. To think about something as intimate and small as a person’s alveoli, and how their life might impact on the way that gases are exchanged there, and then to imagine those tiny but significant relationships inside the lungs of billions of people is… well, incredible in exactly the same way as becoming aware as a child of vastness of humanity.

I found myself wondering this morning about the breathing of each of the friends I was thinking about, and of that new little baby. All those lungs and all their different circumstances. The enormity of it overwhelms and fascinates me.

On a day where I have next to no plans, I thought, ‘Perhaps I can just lay here all day, mulling over the wonders of life’. But the promise of a cup of tea dragged me out from under the covers and into the sunshiny winter day. And, for once, instead of rushing into my to do list (I know I said I had no plans, but, y’know, I’ve got things I want to do), I’ve let myself amble and ponder. It’s amazing how rest can shift your priorities.

~
Cat with good priorities

(Because there aren’t already enough cat pictures on the interwebs, here’s a picture of my housemate’s cat enjoying the winter sun. Now there’s an animal with its priorities in good order.)