Ghosts and New Beginnings

Life is very strange at the moment. Well, it has been for quite some time now, but it’s been extra strange since my housemate and I landed in Melbourne. It’s taken me a little while to tease out the strangeness, to get a good sense of where it’s really coming from.

The answer isn’t simple, of course, but part of why I’ve felt pretty weird these last couple of weeks is that I’ve found myself trying to marry together different parts of myself. The parts of me that existed when I lived in Melbourne, the parts of me that were there when I visited and missed this city, and who I feel like I am now. I’ve mentioned here before that Melbourne often feels to me like it’s haunted. For me, it’s a place full of ghosts — ghosts of the past me, ghosts of long-over relationships, ghosts of friendships changed. And perhaps the missing of the place has made each of those ghosts just a little more powerful now I’m living here again. Nostalgia is a strange thing, cruel at times.

A while ago, for a piece I was writing, I was reading a lot about narration and the self, and how vital it is for our mental wellbeing to build a coherent sense of self. So much of that building process is about making connections between events, objects and places that are, really, not closely related to one another. In other words, we tell ourselves a story about what happens to us in order to make sense of it, and in order to create the character we call our ‘self’. What’s happening to me now, I think, is that those stories aren’t quite matching up. There’s a bit of rearranging to be done in my thinking about them.

Along with that confusion though has been an immense sense of relief. I feel relaxed here, at home. I guess the weirdness will settle eventually, and that I’ll figure out how to fit all those parts of myself back together again. And, I hope, I’ll learn to live more easily with the ghosts here. They are, after all, mostly benevolent ones.

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Thinking About Waste

One of the topic areas I’m researching and writing about at the moment is waste: what it is, what it means, what affect it has on us and the world around us, and what it says about how we relate to the world around us.

I’ve been reading the Milkwood Permaculture blog for several years now, on and off. Recently I worked my way through a big backlog of posts (I’m not exactly consistent in my reading habits) and came across this fantastic video, where Milkwood‘s Nick Ritar discusses the problems with how we deal with our own biological waste.

His point that much of the obstacle is in our own minds is so true. The house I grew up in was in the middle of an acre of land, and we weren’t connected to the town sewerage. We had a sewerage tank instead, and at some point Mum and Dad connected a hose and sprinkler to it, so when the tank was full, it would pump the treated effluent onto the grass or gardens. Perhaps naturally, we called it the Poo Sprinkler, and usually ganged up on Dad when it needed to be moved around the yard (sorry Dad). So it’s probable that my own level of disgust at these things is a little lower than it might be for most, but I still found myself having to get beyond some revulsion while watching Ritar’s talk.

Obviously, the revulsion or disgust is not an entirely unhelpful reaction — our waste mostly needs to be treated in some way before it’s safe to use. But, as this talk very rightly points out, if that revulsion leads to us just wanting to get the stuff as far away from us as possible, it’s not really very helpful at all in the long run. Not recognising ourselves and our waste as part of some larger system is part of why we’re facing the localised environmental and broader climate issues that we are.

Ritar, of course, makes a much more compelling argument than I do. The video is definitely worth watching.

Lying on the floor

Walking home from teaching one night, on the phone to my Mum, I rounded a corner to find a woman and her tiny dog, waiting to cross the road.

That dog’s on a long leash, I thought.

“Watch out for my dog, lady.” the woman said.

“It’s okay, I can see him.” I said, probably impatiently.

“Yeah well, how would I know? You’re looking down.” She snapped, and crossed the road.

“Yes,” I said, “Down. To where the dog is.”

And all of a sudden this woman and I were yelling at each other across the street, until she stormed into her apartment building and the door slammed, and I became aware of my Mum, on the phone I still held to my ear, saying “Sophie, who are you talking to?”

As I told her the story, and as is often the case for me, my indignation turned to guilt. “I can’t believe I yelled at her,” I said to Mum.

“Don’t worry,” she said “You’ll never see her again.”

And it’s true. I’ll probably never see that woman with her tiny dog on a stupidly long leash again. But it’s highly unusual for me to yell at strangers in the street. If I am, it’s a pretty good sign that there’s something not so great going on for me. Anger, frustration and grumpiness are usually an indication that I’m feeling overwhelmed by or stressed about life—often I don’t even know why.

I’m pleased that this is something I know about myself. It means I can make some little adjustments to how I organise my days, so I get enough downtime or rest. Because rest is usually the answer to stress. But it’s not always easy. In this recent piece, one of my favourite yoga writers, Yogi J Brown, discusses the ways we should (and usually don’t) deal with stress. Intimacy with ourselves, he says, is the best antidote—that is, spending time with ourselves in a way that allows us to see what’s going on. Noticing the anger or frustration is the first step.

When I was a teenager, I used to spend a lot of time lying on the floor or my bed, just listening to music. One afternoon, my Mum came into my bedroom to find that I’d actually fallen asleep on the floor, my head just centimetres from a speaker that was blaring music. It’s easy to be dismissive, to say that I could afford to do that then because I didn’t have the responsibilities I do now. But that’s a load of crap. Yes, I do have more responsibilities now, but surely that just makes it all the more important that I get some downtime, so I’m able to deal with those responsibilities… well, responsibly.

In my essay for The Emerging Writer, I explored some of the benefits for writing of doing nothing (well, almost nothing—listening still counts as something, really) with the physical body. To briefly summarise that part of the essay, doing nothing allows the body and the mind to process stuff, and potentially to make links between things that might not be immediately obvious, or that the brain might not have made otherwise.

Obviously, this can be good for writing. But it’s also just good for us on a more general level. Rest—waking rest, as well as sleep— is really important. (And ‘rest’, by the way, is just as metabolically active as activity—it just uses energy in different ways.)

In this piece on the benefits of the yoga pose savasana (which translates as ‘corpse pose’ and basically involves lying on the floor doing nothing), Sydney yoga teacher Brooke McCarthy writes in detail about what happens when we relax deeply—and how to do it. After reading this piece I decided I needed savasana to make an appearance in my life every day. I haven’t quite managed that yet, but on the days when I do get to it, everything seems just a little calmer. Honestly, lying on the floor for ten or fifteen minutes when I’m really busy makes the world of difference to my state of mind. And, really, if I’m feeling overwhelmed anyway, what am I really going to get done in those fifteen minutes?

And while I’m on the subject of ‘busy’. That words makes me cranky. I’d never really thought about why until I read this piece about the trap of busyness (interesting: my eyeToy autocorrects busyness to business). Writer Tim Krieder suggests that being busy is an avoidance tactic—if we’re busy, we don’t need to face ourselves, and all those things that are worrying us or upsetting us. And the more I teach yoga, the more I realise that everyone has at leat some of that kind of baggage. Facing it is hard, so makes sense that we don’t want to do it. But avoiding it doesn’t make it go away. For me at least, avoidance often makes the worry warp into something else—like yelling at a woman and her dog on the street.

My response lately to the question ‘how are you?’ has been ‘busy’. And after I’d said it a few times, I realised that it, along with the crankiness I was carrying around, was an indication I was doing too much.

All of this is a very roundabout way of saying that, once again, I’m returning to that teenage habit of lying on the floor listening to music on a regular basis. I’m trying to get some nothing into each if my days. It’s amazing. I feel instantly less busy.

Quietly missing someone

These last couple of days I’ve had a long-time friend staying with me. She and I became friends when, as fifteen-year-olds who caught the same bus home from school, we one day noticed a sheep standing on a hill in a paddock, its head above the rest its flock. It looked so quaint standing there that we looked for it again the next day. And the next day, and the next. And every day, there it was, and so our acquaintance developed into a friendship.

She and I spent so much easy time together over the next three years that it’s always what we return to when we see each other now. We talk for hours about nothing and everything.

This friend lives in another part of the country to me—and has done for all but two years of our adult lives. I miss her. And that missing hurts most whenever we part company again.

For various reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about missing people. And about living away from people that you miss. In my adult life, I’m yet to live in the same city as either of my brothers, and I find myself envying siblings who see each other frequently. In the same way, I wish it was easy for me to just be in my parents’ company. A three hour bus trip, in my opinion, is not easy.

Having grown up in a small country town, I have friends who live all over the country. And having moved interstate more than once myself has only added to the list of people I miss.

Missing people is a strange thing. It’s not strange that it happens—of course it does. What I mean is that the feeling itself is strange. Missing someone feels like it creates a little tear in me somewhere, or a loose stitch. Just something tiny, really. But that tiny instability is something I’m always aware of, and it changes the way I move through life. It means I have to take more care, lest the tear grow larger, or the stitch come looser; lest I begin to fall apart. Those small breakages need to be tended to regularly.

Missing people, for me, is quite separate to missing a place. Missing people does not mean I want to be where they are, necessarily, but it does mean I want to be with them. The difference is subtle, I suppose. And it’s odd to me that there can be that separation, that seeming contradiction. The way I miss people confuses me. That I can still function, and pursue other things, and miss people the way I do seems odd. I guess caring about someone enough to miss them when they’re not near doesn’t mean I don’t want other things. And wanting those other things is not a reflection on my feelings for the people I miss (which is something I’ve worried over from time to time).

Tomorrow it is my recently-departed-from-my-company friend’s birthday. Which reminds me that when I saw her this time last year I started writing a post very much like this one, but never published it. This year I will. Happy birthday, dear friend. Know that I miss you when we are not near one another, and that the missing means I really appreciate the time we do get together. May we have more of it sooner rather than later.

Getting older

That morning, as she pulled a grey hair out of her head — her way of dealing with them, now that they occasionally appeared — her first thought, rather than a vain despairing at her own aging (which she’d certainly also been guilty of), was to wonder at how odd it must be for a parent to see these signs of aging in their children. How odd it must have been for her own mother the first time she noticed a grey hair on her daughter’s head; the first time she saw around her daughter’s eyes the small wrinkles perhaps seen only those whose intimate relationship with her allowed them to look so closely at her face. How odd it would be for her mother, she thought that morning, as those small things became more obvious in the face and body of her child.

Moving House (again)

I’ve been packing this week to move house on the weekend. I’ve discovered things I forgot I owned, which I suppose is normal, but it does make me think I can probably get rid of a whole lot of stuff…

This move out of the house is happening a whole lot more quickly than the move into the house did, and so it’s been quite different psychologically (so far). I went back to read what I wrote last time I moved. This stood out.

This house had become home, these housemates like family.

So I guess we began the process of sorting, packing and moving with… well, heavy hearts. Sometime towards the middle of January, I found myself thinking about how I’d only walk this route to a yoga class (or get off the train at this station, or stare out my bedroom windows, or go for a walk in this park, or see this or that neighbour on the street) a finite number of times. And every now and then the four of us would be standing together in the kitchen talking and/or cooking, and one of us would sigh. Sentimentality became a big part of our last weeks in the house.

I’m prone to sentimentality, to brooding over things. The first sentence in the section above is true of the house I’m in now too. But this time around the rest of my housemates are staying put, and I only really found out when exactly I was going to be moving at the beginning of this week. The combination of those two things, I think, means I haven’t yet had time to brood too much. I’m sure that will come once the move has occurred. Of course, this time around I’ll be able to come back and visit my old house and housemates when and if that brooding makes me nostalgic.

At the moment, the whole thing feels a little surreal. I’m teaching all my regular classes, and trying to get other work done, and in between packing my material life into boxes. It’s odd that we feel so attached to all the stuff we accumulate. Some of my things I’ve had since I was a teenager. Some things I’ve only collected more recently, but much of that used to belong to my grandparents, and so is also imbued with sentimental value.

Every time I move, I find myself wanting to just chuck a whole lot of stuff out, but I never manage to get rid of much. It’s just stuff, but it also holds all those memories for me—I’m not sure I’d cope if I had to carry the memories around all on my own. Sentimentality gets me every time.

I’ve written here before about how intrigued I am by what constitutes ‘home’. The relationship between a person and the house, suburb and town or city they live in is such a nuanced one. It will be interesting to see how this shift in homes affects me, how my stuff in a new place changes things.

But for now, back to the packing of boxes.

Family holiday, part four

‘You know we have to run up the stairs too,’ I say.

‘Aww.’

The younger of my two brothers and I have been running barefoot across the grass and the car park near the beach. It has started raining, and the weather patterns from the last few days suggest this light rain, after a stinging hot morning, will soon get much heavier. The rule about also running up the stairs is not related to the likely weather outcome though; I’ve just made it up arbitrarily, the way children often make up rules for games they’re playing.

We’ve just come from the playground at the other of the beach. We had to wade through ankle-deep water to access much of the equipment (hence the bare feet). We stood together on the platform atop four large springs, our weight on either side of the bar spinning it around. We squealed. We were disappointed to discover on the monkey bars that our adult-sized bodies were harder to lift than either of us ever remembered our child-sized bodies being, our upper body strength, perhaps, not having kept up with the increase in size and weight. We climbed over the top of them instead. The slippery slide seemed shorter than when we were children, and the woodchips covering the ground sharper.

Ostensibly, we left the playground to beat the weather home, but it’s probably no coincidence that we made our decision shortly after a small child and his parents arrived.

At the bottom of the stairs we pause briefly. Look at each other. I can hardly believe this man is my little brother; that when he looks at his sister he sees a woman. We run up the stairs together, and across the road, the cement and asphalt roughing up the soles of our feet.