Bathing.

Balanced on one leg, I run water into a plastic tub in the bath. I splash some gentle liquid soap into the tub, and then sit on a chair next to the bath to spray some of the same soap through my hair before I comb it and tie it back up in a plait.

I turn the tap off, test the warmth of the water in the plastic tub, and carefully take my clothes off, easing my heavy moon boot through the leg hole of my underwear, and laying the clothes over the bath, within arm’s reach.

It has been nearly two weeks since I was hit by a car while riding home on my bicycle.

The accident dislocated and broke my ankle badly enough that when I was first admitted to hospital, high on pain medication from the ambulance ride, all the medical staff winced at it, and I have since been reminded of its severity many times by doctors and radiographers and nurses and surgeons. My ankle is now full of metal plates and screws.

I sit on the chair next to the bath and use a wash cloth to wipe the warm soapy water over my skin. I am not yet strong enough to lower myself in and out of the bath without help, and we’re still figuring out how best to put the chair in the shower so that I can reach my crutches and get my moon boot on and off without putting any weight on the broken ankle.

Tenderness has been the quiet surprise for me in the wake of this accident.

It hasn’t surprised me so much from others. My man and my parents and my friends have all responded to this with great tenderness and care, and I am forever grateful for this.

What has surprised me, though, is my own tenderness towards myself.

It started as I sat on the road in the immediate aftermath of the accident, shocked, frightened, and in pain. People rushed around me to arrange ambulances and police and blankets because I was in shock. I just gently cradled my leg so my foot could remain off the ground, and reminded myself to breathe slowly.

When I’ve woken in the night since, crying and feeling the fear of that time on the road catch up with me, it’s been tenderness that I’ve offered that part of myself. And this, I think, is the growing of a certain kind of strength. Just as it took a considerable amount of core physical strength to sit on the road for that long, balancing so that one foot could hang in the air, I’m coming to realise that it takes a mostly unseen gentle strength to offer ourselves kindness and tenderness when we need it — especially when so much in our culture encourages us to push ourselves to achieve one thing or another.

In the bathroom, having washed most of my body, I gently lower myself to sit on a towel on the floor next to the bath. One by one, I open the velcro fastenings on the front of the boot, and lift my leg out of it to sit it on the floor. Very gently, I remove the surgical sock, careful not to twist or pressure the ankle, and lay the leg back on the floor. It is bruised and swollen; yellow, pink and bluey grey. Some of the skin is grazed, and there are long straight surgical wounds. The muscles have lost all their tone, having remained unused for so many days now.

The skin on this leg is itself tender, and can only be touched very lightly. Today, I find myself thinking gently towards the leg too, where before there was considerably more frustration towards this part of my body. Seeing the wounds so clearly, and tending to them, has all but dissolved this particular frustration. This tenderness feels like accepting this withered and sore lower limb as part of me again. I had not realised until this moment that I’d even separated it out in the first place.

There will be a part of me that misses this bathing when my ankle is healed. Slowing down so much has also been incredibly frustrating and sometimes upsetting, but this long, slow lesson in tenderness towards myself is one I hope I will not forget. There is something deeply beautiful in learning the value in treating ourselves the way we might hope to be treated by others when we’re having difficulty.

Washed and dried, the return of my leg to the sock and boot is just as much a gentle exercise, as is getting redressed and packing up the washing paraphernalia. I am more aware of the small spaces my body moves through to achieve these small things, and of the texture of the materials I am covering myself with. I am more aware of what it takes to shift my relationship with those spaces and materials by moving through, with or around them.

This bathing is an exercise in gentle noticing.

There is no rushing.

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Small floods

  There are words enough, at last.

I have come to think of this last year, 2015, as the year I lost to grief. 

Grief appeared at strange moments. Unexpected, it bubbled up from somewhere inside and filled me up. Sometimes it leaked, and wet my eyelashes, matting them together in shiny triangles at the edges of my eyes. Sometimes it seethed then raged, like the ocean withdrawing from the shore and the tidal wave that follows. There were days when the grief burned my cheeks with its saltiness. 

This grief is old. It’s been waiting a decade or more for me to give it space. In that time, it’s trickled into spaces all through my body, looking for somewhere it can rest, leaving its mark along the way, like flood marks on a wall. It hasn’t found a home, in all that time. Nowhere to settle, just restlessness and the scars of constant movement.

When I started giving it space, I began dreaming more than I had in years. About loss, about continuing despite loss. Maybe because of it. Starting again, not from scratch, but from where I am. Something we all need to do.

The grief came to rest in my chest; the space that air from outside creates and then deflates inside my lungs. And I wonder now if this is where it wanted me to allow it to go, all this time, so I could breathe it out, let it go. Have I kept it trapped all these years, thinking all the while that it was me who was the prisoner?

Words travel on the exhale when a person speaks, but for much of last year this old grief of mine was only air and water, draughts and leaks. 

Sounds, movement, silence. 

The only words I could use to explain it were nebulous, vague. 

Shapeless. Air and water. 

Mine alone to hold and then release back into the world, to be unmade and remade, the way we all are; to become something else.

It is a very strange and somewhat distressing state of affairs to be someone who has called themselves a writer and to find that there are no words, or that there are only words that make no sense to anyone else, and to feel that you cannot really understand the words other people are using. 

The year I lost to grief wasn’t completely lost, of course. I travelled, I worked, I loved. I made changes. I made new connections with people, more fully realised the depth of many old ones. I found that these people carried for me when I couldn’t a faith in me that I would find with time. I found, too, an immense gratitude, which I’m not sure there will ever be words enough to express, for this faith in me—especially because some of that faith came from people who didn’t have much beyond a hunch to go on. 

These are words enough now for the grief though. 

There is space where the grief once flooded everything else out. Space for joy and kindness and courage and playfulness. Space for all the things I thought I’d lost, but that had, in fact, just been learning how to swim. 

Too much sitting 

I’m in another airport, with my little backpack and my handbag, and the little knots of excitement/anxiety (I’m never entirely sure which it is) in my brow and the muscles of my neck I always have when I find myself at points of departure, and a low hum of ache in my lower back and the joints where the base of my spine meet my pelvis. 

I’m stupidly early, which I almost always am (except when I miss my flight—I seem to be a person of extremes). The departure gate is slowly filling with other people who are anxious or excited or bored or just plain tired. 

I find the most boring parts of travel, perhaps paradoxically, the most interesting, the most nuanced.

I love watching how other people deal with these moments (minutes, hours). At this departure gate, many are looking at a device of some sort. A woman reads a magazine with a picture of a big pile of fruit and vegetables on the page. A man checks and rechecks his passport and boarding pass. One woman—young, maybe 19, with sandy red hair and glasses and milky skin—sits with her elbows on her knees, her head in her hands, and just looks. Looks at everything and nothing in particular. 

I love watching how I deal with these moments (minutes, hours). Do I reach for a device? Do I read? Do I check my email thirty times even though I know there will be no new ones? Or do I, like the young woman with the glasses, just look?

Do I just look at anything and everything and let my mind wander? 

The ache in my back is from all the sitting and it annoys me. The sitting and the aching. The River Liffey has left a greater impression—a quiet one—in my mind than I realised until I found my mind wandering to it. I’m not entirely sure why at this point. Something about rivers in general, I think. I am tired. I would happily look at Ireland’s green for a whole day, but I wonder if I’d change my mind about that if it had rained more while I was here. There was so much sun in Ireland for my time here. 

I miss important people in my life. A lot. But at the same time I like being on my own. I don’t know what to do with that tension. I wonder where all these people are going, beyond the destination of the flight. Home? Holiday? Work? I wonder where I am going. I wonder what on earth I’m doing, roaming around like this, vague and tired. I think about some of the ways in which this year has been incredibly difficult and strange for me and can see that somehow the wandering is helping, even if I can’t say how or why. I don’t know what’s coming next on this trip, and I’m surprisingly calm about that. 

I think about the yoga anatomy video I’ve watched in the last few days about the nuanced relationship between the different parts of our nervous system, between the parts that speed us up and the parts that slow us down. 

My flight is called. There is movement. My body is glad for it. The knots in my neck muscles relax a little. I find my boarding pass. Departure again.

Wandering, place and muscle memory

20140417-214025.jpgWe are walking down streets we don’t know, ambling, listening, looking, taking it in, and talking, always talking. The sun is out and I have to take off my cardigan as I warm up from the walk, but then put it back on again as the sun disappears behind a cloud.

There is a tiny homemade market in a little park, the stalls set out on picnic blankets. There is a little old woman sitting on a park bench with her granny trolley, squinting at us. A string trio dancing around on a street corner, and further up the road a brass trio in an open arcade. A woman out the front of a men’s suit shop, spruiking its wares, referring to the plain suits as “staplers you have in the cupboard for years”.

The sun comes out again, disappears again; I remove my cardigan and put it on again.

We have been walking for more than an hour when we decide to catch the tram to get where we’re going on time. We catch it to the end of the line and start walking again, but abandon the journey about ten minutes in, realising we’re not going to make it in time after all. The tram takes us back to the open arcade, and we wander through a market, where a sign tells us that, yes, in case we were wondering, one of the stalls sells organic chia. A man talks in short bursts into a fuzzy microphone about the vegetables he’s selling. A few doors down there is a gourmet grocer and deli, and further down still, a bakery where we eat tidbits off pretty little plates before we begin walking again.

Back in the quiet streets, we take several wrong turns, some on purpose, to explore, others by accident. We walk down cobbled back alleys and peer into gardens. We listen to the breeze through the trees, and get acquainted with neighbourhood cats.

We are looking at houses, but, in doing so, also exploring a possible new stomping ground, a possible new life. Walking streets that we might later frequent, guessing (probably incorrectly) at short cuts we might take. We walk steadily for three hours.

Life is strange in transition; the softer autumn light and cooler air seem apt. And the walking, the slow, continued movement, the tiring feet and legs—these things help a sense of the place settle in a little, become somehow a muscle memory as well as a mental one.

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.

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.)

House and garden

Yesterday we signed the lease for a little cottage-style house in Melbourne’s Brunswick, and my mind has immediately gone mad, thinking about what I can do with the courtyard garden. So many plans.

The friends my housemate and I are staying with have chooks, and they’re so lovely that I’d dearly love to take them with me (plus, think of the eggs!). They’re so inquisitive. I crouched down in the grass to take this photo, and they all came over immediately, thinking I had food, and then eyed me curiously when they realised that I didn’t.

Unfortunately, my courtyard garden will not accommodate chooks — there’s no grass for them, it’d be cruel. So I’m adding chooks to my list of things to have when I’m a Proper Grown Up and live on a bit of land somewhere.