Moving through places

  It is the walking I remember most clearly.

It is the walking, and the muscle memory of it, the feeling of my feet inside my shoes and the ground underneath them, that allows me to remember other things about the places that—quite literally, it seems—etch themselves into me. I’m not sure I could come to love a place if I didn’t move through it. 

In Paris I wore familiar sandals that collected dust and dirt, as did my feet. It was hot. My skin was always warm and slightly dusty. I was calm in Paris, alone. Comfortable in my dusty warm skin. I walked for hours in that city. In crowded places and quiet ones. I was isolated by my very minimal French, but often welcomed with a cheery ‘Bonjour’ or ‘Bonsoir’. I listened to the language like one might listen to music. 

I bought very little in Paris, other than food and a couple of small gifts. I had only a small backpack with me. I was blissfully free of luggage; similarly, baggage. 

I walked through cemeteries, galleries, streets. Barely speaking, mostly listening, often lost. 

In Edinburgh, I wore lace up shoes I’d bought in Ireland. Comfortable but still stiff while I wore them in. They made a pleasant click on the wide footpaths of the New Town, and held steady on the cobblestones of the Old Town. It was cold enough for a jacket and scarf in Edinburgh, though it was the beginning of summer. 

I was sad in Edinburgh, but somehow simultaneously so pleased to be there. I fell in love with the architecture in that city—with a beauty that seemed to embrace the idea of dark edges. It helped me to embrace my own shadowy outlines, to allow the sadness just to be. 

In the Scottish National Gallery I sat near a gallery tour group while the leader talked about a sculpture that looked from one angle like it was grimacing; from another, laughing. When the tour group moved on, I looked at the sculpture with a gallery security guard and another patron. I was the only one of the three of us who was tall enough to see the sculpture clearly from both angles. Only I could see the happy face too. 

In the New Town I found a cafe down some stairs, below street level. It had black and white checkered floor tiles. I sat in the window with a book, not really reading, and instead looking up at the street. The slightly acidic, but also sweet smell of coffee, and the melody of Scottish accents. 

I walked through galleries here, too, and castles and museums, and up a hill where I could look out over the city. I walked through my sadness, through my shadows. My feet were sore in Edinburgh, rather than dusty. My hair was wild, blown about by the wind. 

It is the walking that helps me remember these places now, and myself in them. The residual feeling of one step after another, the sense of moving slowly through space. It is the walking that has imprinted in my mind some kind of map of these cities: incomplete, hazy, highly individual, perhaps inherently unshareable, but undoubtedly precious. 

Coming home

An old upright piano sits in the park, near the public toilets. It is wooden, painted white, and a bit dishevelled. I sit at it and open the lid. The keys are discoloured, some of them chipped. 

I play. 

I play a little piece I’ve made up over many years. I don’t even remember when I started playing it. Maybe in high school. It’s very simple. Based on a single chord in the left hand, and the notes of that scale in the right hand. It’s different each time I play it, and that’s the point. This is the piece I play when I really just want to play. This kind of playing, where I’m just making it up as I go along, takes me to some other place. The whole of me becomes this music, this play. 

It is a relief to become something else for a time, and a joy. 

I’m in Sydney Park. A place I must have walked a thousand times when I lived nearby some years ago. I’d been wandering around the park before I found the piano. Noticing what had changed, noticing what was the same. 

I haven’t lived near here now for years. I’ve lived in another state for nearly three years. I’m visiting Sydney with a man—a little adventure we’re having together. He’s somewhere else in the park now, writing. Later we will walk down King Street and Enmore Road, my arm looped through his, and we will talk about how important this part of Sydney—the park, Newtown, the Inner West—is to me, to my story. To who I am and who I’m becoming. We’ll talk about what home is, what coming home means—a conversation we’ve been having on and off for quite some time. 

By the time I find myself sitting at a piano in Sydney Park, I’ve been home from my travels overseas for a few weeks. I’ve been confused and a bit lost for most of that time. More than a week of the fog of jet lag, not being sure where I was in time, wanting to eat at strange hours, sleep when I should be awake. Actually, just wanting to eat and sleep pretty much all the time. 

But the confusion is more than just jet lag. 

Home is strange to me. That feeling when you get back from being away, where the house looks different in some way you can’t put your finger on, that has lingered.

It’s something to do with time, and something to do with change. Time has passed for me and time has passed for my home, and things have changed, but it’s happened separately. I have an ongoing feeling of needing to catch up, and of needing to catch others up, but not having the words with which to do that. 

The beginning of this year was incredibly difficult for me, in ways I’m not ready to talk about publicly. My mental health took a pretty heavy beating. I’m okay, mostly, but I’m changed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’m changing. 

The overseas travel was difficult for me. I was fragile when I left Australia, and frightened. 

The trip helped me find myself, in the way that travel often does. I found my courage again, my capacity to make decisions and deal with uncertainty and unfamiliarity. But it also helped me lose myself. Things that were really important to me no longer seem quite so vital. I’ve changed my mind about some things I thought were more solid. A lot of this is good, of course, but there’s a certain quiet kind of grief involved in letting go of parts of oneself. Saying goodbye. 

And so coming home is strange. I’ve come face to face with an old version of myself, a person I sort of still am but also am not. It will take me some time to make something of the threads between these different versions of myself. 

In Sydney Park at the piano, I play as people and their dogs walk past. I’m not much of a fan of performing; but I’m not feeling self-conscious about playing in front of people like this, which is new for me. 

Some of the piano keys don’t work, and there are pauses in the piece where I don’t intend there to be. Many of the keys are slightly off in their tuning. The sustaining pedal doesn’t work. The piece I play sounds both the same and different to any other time I’ve ever played it, on this different piano. The keys feel different under my fingertips, the piano stool different under my sit bones. 

The sameness, though, is me. The threads of me that link all these different selves. The memory that’s in my fingers as they play, in my body as it sways with the rhythm of the piece. The part of me that was always at home.

Alone in Paris

  It is 37 degrees in Paris, and I decide I want to get off the stuffy Metro a few stops early to look at something. I don’t plan to walk the rest of the way to the museum I’m hoping to end up at eventually, but I get distracted by a garden, and then I’m walking. And walking, and walking. 

For some reason, on very hot days I almost always find myself outside, walking for a lot longer than is probably advisable. 

My feet are dusty and sore, my cheeks are red, and my hairline is sweaty. I am dishevelled. I sip the water in my bottle. It’s warm. My steps are slow and steady. I chase shade and rest often. I think about the muscles and bones in my feet, and the trajectory of weight through them as I walk, and about how I’m probably getting sunburnt. I gaze at buildings and the river and the other people walking and shimmering in the heat. 

When I reach the museum, what I wanted to see is closed. But I have walked all this way in the heat, so I pay to see something else. And I walk more. Only this time it is cool. In the bathroom I splash water on the back of my neck, but there is nothing to be done about the dusty feet.

The art makes me think and feel. Things I don’t have words for. Things I don’t have to find words for because I am alone. 

One year when I lived in Sydney, I had a theatre subscription, and most times I went alone. I would walk home from the plays in the dark, thoughts and feelings rattling around in my head, changing me ever so subtly. That I went alone and walked home alone felt precious to me. Solitary in the same way as reading a novel. 

The walking, the museums, the river, the dusty feet, being in Paris alone feels like this to me. 

By the river another hot day I buy an ice cream. Even though I eat it within five minutes of receiving it, it still melts all over me. My hands, my legs, then my face when I touch it with my hands. I get what I think is most of it off, then realise I don’t really care. 

I keep walking. Dusty feet, ice cream sticky face and hands. Smiling. Solitary, like reading a novel. 

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.

Adventure

Looking back over the last few posts here, I’ve realised that I seem to spend an awful lot of time writing here about not doing things. Or at least about needing to do nothing because I manage to keep myself busy and occasionally need a rest. But I rarely write about the things that I actually am doing.

So I thought today I would write about something that I’ve actually done. Today I went adventuring with a friend — a kind of research project for both of us. We caught the bus from Newtown to Coogee with no real plans, except to look around and maybe find somewhere we could eat pancakes. We wandered along the beach, in the rain, and took pictures of sand, boats, trees. We found a cafe in which to eat pancakes (yum!), and we wandered around a local green grocer without shopping baskets, trying to resist the temptation to buy any food. We walked up hills into the residential streets, gazing at all the interesting houses and interesting gardens.

We talked a lot, and I got damp toes. And we took pictures. Here are some of mine.

Letting things settle

I had thought I’d write a whole lot of blog posts while I was in Melbourne. I thought I’d be so excited about what I was doing that I’d want to share it.

And I was excited. But I worked out pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be able to share it for some time, even if I wanted to. More and more lately, I find I need to let things settle before I can approach them again in writing. This is true in my personal life as well as the stuff I write that I call ‘work’ (the line between the two is often very difficult to distinguish).

It’s nearly two weeks since I came back to Sydney, but I still don’t really feel like things have settled. A number of things have shifted, in subtle but important ways. I’ve tried to find an appropriate analogy for what’s going on in my head, but they all sound far too dramatic, when the action that’s caused the shift wasn’t really anything special.

The first yoga class I taught when I got back to Sydney was strange. It was one of my corporate yoga classes. At lunchtime I found myself in a very familiar office building, sitting on my mat in a very familiar empty wing of the fourth floor, chatting to regular students. Then the little travel alarm clock I use to keep time in yoga classes ticked over to midday, and I suddenly realised that I was the one who had to teach the class. For some reason, it came as a surprise. And then when I did start teaching, I found myself making changes to my usual way of sequencing poses, and the words that came out of my mouth focussed on different things: the spine instead of the arms, the feet instead of the legs. I found myself walking around more, watching, really watching my students. Most of my classes are made up of regulars, but that first week back it was as if I was looking at a whole lot of new people — not because of any real change in the way they moved, but because I was looking at them differently.

The strangest part of all of this was that it all happened without me even thinking about it. Usually when I make these changes to the way I teach (or the way I do anything, really), it’s a conscious decision, but this wasn’t conscious at all. It just happened. I don’t know yet whether they’re good changes or bad changes or changes that make no difference at all, and I don’t know whether the fact that they’re unconscious is good or bad or has no meaning at all.

This teaching anecdote the best way I can think to describe what I feel is happening in every part of my thinking and behaviour now. I’m doing things differently, just subtly, in my writing and in my general life stuff too. To be honest, the fact that it’s happening without any conscious thought on my part is driving me a little batty. I have no idea how any of it is going to turn out, or why I’m even doing it in the first place. I just have to have patience. And, let’s be honest, patience isn’t exactly my strong point. (Just to prove that to myself, last weekend when I was in Canberra with my family I had a couple of little tantrums. The first involved surprise tears before breakfast and a fair bit of confusion for my poor Dad, and the second involved ranting at Mum while I stomped around reluctantly packing my bag to go home.)

I’m sincerely hoping that things do settle (at least a little) sooner rather than later. I think they will. I’m working on a number of exciting projects at the moment — some writing, some yoga — and they seemed to have at least calmed the frustration to below tantrum-causing levels. It’s a better mental place to be.

So I might eventually get to sharing some of the half-complete drafts of posts I wrote about the MWF sessions I went to in Melbourne. I hope I do; we saw some pretty great stuff. But I might not either. And, actually, as frustrating as it has been, not really knowing how things will turn out, even with whether or not I press ‘publish’ on a blog post, is also kind of exciting.

To Melbourne…

Tomorrow morning a very lovely lady writer friend of mine and I are off to Melbourne for the week. We’re heading down to attend various sessions at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, and because we both love to be in that city.

The picture above is one I took when I went down for a visit last December. I took it because I so often stood in that spot when I lived in Melbourne, watching the trams cross the intersection at the corner of Flinders and Swanston Streets, waiting to meet one friend or another. “Meet you under the clocks at Flinders Street,” we’d say.

I’m fully expecting this trip to be full of nostalgia and whimsy. Our eight days there will be the most time I’ve spent in the city since I left it three and a half years ago.

Tomorrow can’t come soon enough.