Autumn is ausumn

There’s something about autumn. It’s nostalgic and the shadows are long and things are already almost winter which is almost summer which is almost the end of the year and what even is life? Well, we can’t tell you that but we can tell you that autumn involves some lovely things worth marking the time with. So take a look around this autumn. Use it to mark your place in the year. This is a Public Service Announcement: look around. This bit can be lovely. 

Cool evenings are gorgeous. Couches are cosier and sleep is deeper and if you go for a walk in a cool evening you come back with a slightly shiny, slightly rosy face.

Treetops are nice. You don’t see a lot of graphs about the percentage of time human adults spend looking at tree tops but my guess is that that particular section of the pie graph would be a tiny sliver. Look at treetops more. They’re quiet and ancient and they have an excellent view of the tiny people walking past beneath them looking at their phones.

Warm socks are nice.

The word hedgehog exists.

Conversations between people from other generations are a great way of remind yourself that language is incredible. Tune in to one. Listen to the way people outside your cohort use language to do things it doesn’t usually do. Do they say seriously though, oh my God shut up when they mean “goodness, how exciting”? Do they say she wasn’t trained as such per se when they mean “she wasn’t trained at all but I couldn’t have cared less”? Language is a way of sharing, and we have languages even inside our own languages. Listen to someone else’s for a bit.

An open fire is a thing of beauty and a joy to behold and I don’t care who knows it. Even the smell of someone else’s fire does about twenty percent of the job. 

Reading a book when it’s raining has got to be one of the greatest pastimes available to human kind. Rain, of course, is rare at the moment, but as soon as you hear it on the roof, grab a book and go hard, because there’s nothing quite like it. 

Hot drinks. Steam coming off them, twirling and backflipping up into the universe. It’s not winter yet so you don’t need hot drinks, they just make things better.

This isn’t particular to autumn but the other day I remembered that the expression “change your mind” is one of those expressions Shakespeare came up with. Before that, the concept of changing one’s mind wasn’t a thing. It’s such a beautiful expression, when you think about it, because it’s about a magical/chemical transformation of ideas that is so all-encompassing as to change the very brain itself, and by extension the identity of the person thinking. The act of having one’s mind changed is a concept that sustains a bit of heavy artillery these days. We know what we think. Sometimes we get more information and we develop our thinking, but rarely do we revise our thinking on something so completely that our mind is changed. It doesn’t sound like fun, to be honest, to have your mind changed. It can be, though, a powerful thing. Think back on the last few times it happened. Most people have a friend who’s really good at mind-changing — someone’s whose perspective is well-considered or well argued or hilariously on point. Asking people who know more than you about something  a bunch of questions can change your mind. Reading an article - a really good article - can change your mind. A good documentary will change your mind. Amazing that you can sit there for 90 minutes and at the end of those 90 minutes you feel like a slightly different person because suddenly you know about how Russian dance changed subtly but importantly between the wars. So do it: change your mind. It’s good for you.

 Secret paths are lovely. Down the side of a building. Off the main walkway. Hooray for secret paths. 

Haircuts are the business. Sick of yourself? Get a haircut. 

Eat some cake.

Stand in a garden. Stand in a flower shop. Surround yourself in green. 

Autumn is sweet and lovely and full of possibility and so are lots of the things you’re not concentrating on. Concentrate, for heaven’s sake. The treetops are watching you. This has been a Public Service Announcement. 

This originally appeared in The Big Issue.

An important series of shells

Science was never my thing, at school. Loathed it, completely. Seemed to be about neatly recording the right answers rather than anything real. Now, I can’t get enough of it. Still misunderstand it completely but that doesn’t stop me constantly clicking on stories about scientific advancements to feed my late blooming fascination with the power of science to change the world. 

Probably the key moment when this turned around for me was at a party about ten years back, when a party guest was taking me through her philosophical approach to life. She was a scientist and had so far provided fascinating insight into a number of subjects. 

“The way I see it”, she said to a bunch of us, “is that we’re all really just a collection of shells”. I thought to myself, “I like this woman”. I pictured the shells as she spoke, a delicate collection in the palm of a hand, and I waited for her to expand the metaphor. It took me a full three to six minutes to realise that of course she had actually said, “we are all really just a collection of cells”. 

We are, of course, a collection of cells. According to the interesting scientist, those cells shift and move and become other things and once were other things and everything is kind of part of everything else or something, and not a great deal of it makes heaps more sense than if we were a handful of shells frankly. What it does do, though, this thought, is take the pressure off us all a bit. Leaves are made of cells too. So are shells, incidentally. 

Here’s the thing. We are a collection of cells, or shells, or whatever, for a limited time only. The cells could have been organised differently. They weren’t. They’re the ones that make you. You’re the only combination exactly like you. If some of your cells had instead bound together with some different ones, you could be a tree or the minute hand on the clock in someone’s break room, or the Finance Minister or the bendy part of a vacuum.

So. Public Service Announcement: it’s not all about you. It’s all a bit of an accident really. You could be anything. How lucky are you!

You get pancakes and music and the sun on your back and velcro.

You get the smell of books.

You get incredible cloud formations and tissue paper and pineapple.

You get theatre and bicycles and the feeling of having just had a shower.

You get to stand in a crowd at a sports ground and care about a made-up thing with its own logic and music and community and humour and you get to eat hot chips while you do it.

You get the perfectly symmetrical, delicate beauty of the humble leaf.

You get donuts.

You get in-jokes and birthday wishes and sunsets and animals and stories about small people getting the better of nasty people. 

You get water views. There’s a reason they’re coveted, but the rich people don’t get all of them. There’s something about a water view, even at the local creek, that brings down the blood pressure immediately. 

Same with fire. Stare into a fire and try not to be slightly entranced. 

You get your favourite TV show, and the people you talk about it with.

You get the occasional nice person behind you saying “take your time” when you’re flustered.

You get the feeling of your feet in the sand or your hand in someone else’s or your head in a book. 

You get snow and kites and card games and that thing you can do where you put your hand out the car window and make wave shapes in the breeze.

You have heard the humans around you counting down from ten in a drunken bellow and you have looked at the fireworks exploding spectacularly overhead and you have thought to yourself, a year huh. I wonder what the next one will be like. If you’d been a tree, or the hand on a clock, or the bendy bit on a vacuum, or even, arguably, a finance minister, you would not have had the intellectual capacity to take in all that data. To be curious. To wonder. To quietly hope.

Public Service Announcement. You’re just a collection of shells. Delicate, individual, miraculous shells, the combination of which allows you to exist in the world. Congratulations. You get to be you.

You're doing a great job!

Hi there! This is a Public Service Announcement. You are doing a great job. No! Shoosh! Stop it. You are. In fact, even if you are a terrible person - a narcissistic politician, say, or a boss who gaslights everyone in the office into needlessly fretting about spreadsheets and nobody meets your eyes in staff meetings  - you are still doing a good job. You are! If you recognise yourself in either of these descriptions, chances are you should quit your actual job, but if you look closely, there will be, somewhere in your life, significant areas in which you excel. 

The idea that we must all strive together, and that in striving there is virtue and, eventually, reward, is the lie of capitalism come to taunt us all. And nay, we shall not succumb to this fantastical fiction. For some of us enjoy not striving. Some of us have had a rather nice time failing too. Some of us enjoy the small moments in the middle of meaningful moments even more than we enjoy the meaningful moments, for life is made up of lots of things and some of them are the way a trail of ants carries a butterfly or the sound of a dog barking two streets away while the kettle boils in the kitchen. 

So: you know when you’re watching a movie and there’s a character who you don’t know if you’re supposed to like and then the character casually connects with the dark, brooding kid who nobody else can talk to and then the kid totally opens up and when one of the other characters comes back into the room they discover them laughing together? You know that character is a hero. Are you the kind of person who makes an effort with the weird kid? Well done. Congratulations. You’re the good guy.

Same if you can talk to animals. It’s a real pleasure, and a lot of people don’t have it. If you can do that, you’re doing a great job.

Here’s to the calmer-downers. If you’re stressed, they make you laugh at yourself. If you’re anxious, they talk you down. They grin at you when you thought nobody was looking backstage before your big performance. Can you think of a better skill? Capitalism doesn’t pay the calmer-downer-ers by the hour, but hooboy are you people worth your weight in gold. Send a message to your calmer-downerers. Tell them they’re doing a great job.

The joiner-uppers are great too. You’ll be relating a story to a joiner-upper and they’ll say, oh that’s like this other thing and you’ll think GOOD GRIEF! HOW DID I NOT SEE THAT THOSE TWO COMPLETELY SEPARATE THINGS WENT TOGETHER? WHO IS THIS TRUTH WIZARD? This also works with quotes. Some people are geniuses at quoting something at just the right moment. This is a rarified skill and one that, in the right moment, can be truly astonishing to witness. Great job.

If you are a good host - if you guide people through space like an angel and remember people’s names and make them feel like the most fascinating person on the planet while you prepare tea using fresh leaves you grew in the garden like it’s a choreographed dance you’re doing with all the guests and the cups and the tea paraphernalia and the hot water dancing with the leaves in a perfect glass teapot while you tell an amusing story that is also humble and charming and astute and amusing, you’re doing a great job and also when can I come over and do you bake?

Maybe you’re good at diving under water. Not the flashy outside diving that gets to go to the olympics but the diving where you feel like a dolphin and your mind goes kind of quiet and your breath feels surprised.

Perhaps you’re the sort of person who knows when to be silent. When to sit with a person and hold their hand. When to look into a person’s eyes and not make a face or say anything weird or try to make a joke. Seriously good skill. Well done.

Maybe you are a master at plaiting hair or folding sheets or packing car boots or putting people at ease at parties or finding lost earrings. 

You are not a list of achievements measured against other people’s. You are you, and nobody else is as good as you are being you. Fight the power and own it: you’re doing a great job. This has been a Public Service Announcement. 

This was originally published in The Big Issue, which is an excellent publication and a social justice organisation all in one. Support in when you can.

Slow time

When you think of being sick in bed, there’s something quietly delightful about the idea. ”Sniff!“ you imagine yourself saying adorably as you snuggle under the covers and watch endless episodes of something utterly wonderful and somebody brings you soup. Being sick, though (and this is something only sick people understand) really does suck. 

The other day, quite by accident, I was still. My body hurt when I moved it due to a pinched nerve situation known in medical circles as middle age, and so I was forced to be still. Couldn’t even hold up a book without making the kinds of noises I imagine a donkey might make while giving birth in an electrical storm. All I could really do was listen, and be still, and it was dreadful and also quite lovely. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do not believe in everybody always slowing down and taking their time. I do not believe that people are terrible these days because they’re over-scheduled and use their phones too much and nobody talks to anybody and they should all stop to smell the roses and salute to the sun at dawn. Some of those things are partly true, sometimes, but the pressure on people to live the dream and have a family and parent well and eat clean and live right and slow down and make time for yourself completely fails to take into account the stark realities of, well, being a human person. 

But sometimes, you have a change of pace thrust upon you. You’re stuck in traffic. You’re in the line for something in a shop. You’re forced to lie down and not move because you broke your own body by pinching a stupid nerve. Whatever the case may be. This is a Public Service Announcement: enjoy the slow bits.

Enjoy waiting in queues. Not all queues, obviously. Not anxious ones. Boring queues. There aren’t enough boring queues these days. If you find yourself in one, though, think of the five top friends you’ve ever had and why. Think of the fact that there are people whose job it is to be queue scientists. They study and curate queues. They play tricks on people like turning the queues into s-shapes so humans feel like they’re progressing further than they are. Queue scientists: are they evil geniuses? You decide! Listen in to a conversation happening somewhere in that queue. What is that woman on the phone talking about? Who is Steven and why is he on thin ice and what did Ingrid do in the staff meeting that upset Sonia?  Let your mind go to other places, even if you weren’t invited.

Enjoy other people’s friendships. You don’t have to know them, but when time slows down sometimes you can see them a little more clearly. At the end of my street there’s a school. In that school there’s a gardener. The other day he was sitting on the school fence rather adorably having a sandwich out of a little lunchbox. His legs were even dangling. The comparison between the gardener and the children was not difficult to draw. As I was approaching, a boy half way up a tree near the gardener broadcast to everybody from his birds-eye-view, “Hey you guys, look! Roger has the same cheese sticks as Annabelle!” and the schoolyard exploded into a thousand urgent conversations. The kid up the tree lowered himself onto the fence and sat next to the gardener as I passed, peering into the lunchbox for a closer look. “Thanks for that Oscar”, said Roger, quietly. “No worries”, said Oscar.  “You do, you know. Same exact ones!” and they smiled at each other, for different reasons. There was something about this little celebration of cross-generational cheese enjoyment that made me grateful that I had taken the time, by accident, to forget my wallet and thus to be walking back to the house to get it. 

Enjoy staring out windows. Not enough psychological research has gone into the benefits to one’s mental health of staring out a window and thinking of nothing. 

Compose a message for someone who deserves it. Someone who won’t expect it. Someone who will be glad you took the time. 

Be in a hurry. Get things done. But when things slow down, take the time. This has been a Public Service Announcement. 

This was originally printed in The Big Issue. You know. The good guys.

Mathematically speaking

What are eight eights? Sixty-four! Hi. Welcome to maths class. Take a seat between the tedium and the building anxiety. Prepare yourself for rows of numbers, alarming test questions, and an unnecessary degree of hectoring regarding the exact moment at which Billy and Betty pass each other on separate trains heading in opposite directions.

There. That’s it. That’s maths, right? 

But of course… they teach maths differently these days. Not so concerned with reciting your times-tables, maths is more holistic, now. Maths, they tell you, is all around us. 

Psht! What a joke! What a namby pamby approach to the straightforward business of dealing with two numbers and getting the same answer every time! I mean, there is a right answer for heaven’s sake! That’s the point! Why tell stories about the numbers? Why get to know how they feel? Just get the answer right and go home! Honestly. It’s a symptom, I’m sure you’ll agree, of a world that mollycoddles children into believing the universe should bend to their whims. They don’t have to merely do a simple maths test. Oh no! They must be entertained and made to feel included as well! 

But here’s the thing. Maths is all around us. It’s beautiful and mysterious and surprising and it took me decades to figure out that in fact this is why people who are interested in maths are interested in maths in the first place. Also nobody cares about Billy or Betty or where they’re going on a train or where the fulcrum is on a see saw or what eight eights are. I certainly don’t, because when I was a kid learning maths, maths wasn’t all around me. It was only in two places: (1) in a hot classroom and (2) in the milk bar when I only had two dollars and the bloke behind the counter was waiting for me to decide what to do with it (raspberry icy pole thanks for playing). Maths was literally nowhere else. If it had been, I would have avoided it, or set fire to it, or run away. 

So hoorah for the brave new world of namby pamby maths pedagogy. This is a Public Service Announcement. Maths is all around us. 

Maths is in the complex fingerprint of every leaf. The symmetry and repetition of its motion. The way it flutters and sails and flutters and sails and dovetails and backflips to earth like an accident and a design all at once.

Maths is in the tides that sweep the beaches according to, guess what, the maths of the moon.

Maths is in the chaos and wildness. It’s wild, maths, and its rules and variations and patterns are in the wildest things. The big bang. The clouds swept across the sky in a certain way reflecting the patterns of the sand on the beach. The way the veins in your grandmother’s hand look like squiggling rivers from the air. I don’t care for Billy or for Betty and I certainly never liked maths, but looking for meaning in the freewheeling strangeness of reality is quite a project, you have to admit. It’s a brave and bold one, too. Good on us.

There’s maths in poetry and music and art and comedy. Musical rhythm, speech rhythms, the power of the pause. If you’ve ever stood in a gig and felt the power of a pause surge through a thousand warm bodies in the dark, you’ve had a mathematical moment, Billy and Betty be damned.

I watched a little girl swinging a lanyard at a train station the other day. Around her, adults rushed, or stood, staring, or talked into phones, and this kid watched this lanyard swinging from her finger. Back, and forward. Back, and forward. Like a see saw. Like a swing. Like the tide. She was mesmerised. She broke the pattern sometimes, flicking the lanyard into a wild circle. I realised, eventually, that the whole time she had been doing it, I had been watching, and so had others, and I found myself wondering if they, too, had been watching with a noise in their heads to go with the motion of the lanyard. My brain had been, I realised, providing a little noise for the motion. A tiny moment on a train platform where my brain made music out of motion. When humans have no phone reception, sometimes it’s okay because what they do have is a fulcrum. Maths is all around you. Sometimes, it can be pretty lovely. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This was originally in The Big Issue, which is sold in the street by vendors. Please buy a copy when you can. It makes a big difference and it’s full of interesting stuff.  

REMEMBER THE GOOD STUFF

You know that thing where you’re going about your business and then, suddenly, completely unbidden, totally uninvited, apropos of nothing, a crippling memory of your own social dorkishness injects itself into your thoughts so violently that it eclipses your ability to walk/talk/think/exist as a human in the universe? Hopefully that’s not just me. Whenever this happens, usually in public like when I’m walking down the street or something, I find myself involuntarily folding in on myself like an origami transformer and muttering half-sentences aloud to myself in a kind of sustained groan. It’s as though I have been possessed, which, in a way, I have. Possessed by unpleasant memories, my mind wiped of all other contexts. This is me now. 

I have wished, I must admit, that I could wipe these memories from my mind. Start over. Leave the dork behind. But here’s the thing. We’re all dorks. We all have memories we’d rather park. Thing is though, all life is, really, is memories. Love is memory. Pain is memory. The fact that you still know your childhood phone number is memory but it’s also a lot of other things. Memories are everywhere. Sometimes you just have to focus on the good ones. This is a Public Service Announcement: remember the good stuff.   

Remember sparklers on the beach.

Remember lemon icing.

Remember a tree you liked climbing as a kid.

Remember backflips.

Remember Medicare.

Remember that bit where you get into bed and the sheets are clean but they’re a bit stiff and a bit cold and you’re just getting used to bed life before the day falls away and all you have to do now is purposefully snuggle.

Remember dogs chasing waves in their sleep.

Remember random talented people who do things like beautiful sketches in notebooks on public transport and whose names you will never know and whose stories you will never hear but whose grey sketched faces slowly take shape as you edge closer to your station, wanting to stay until the end.

Remember sunlight belting through a glass of something cold that you can write in the condensation of with your finger.

Remember your favourite person who wore a watch well.

Remember cheese on toast.

Remember the feeling of realising someone you like also likes you. Noticing someone try out your nickname for the first time. Feeling someone hang back in a group to wait for you to catch up.

Remember handstands.

Remember the word ostrich, and the concept of the ostrich, and the fact that ostriches are a real thing and not just a child’s drawing weirdly come to life. Seriously. Google “ostrich running”. Utterly ridiculous. 

Remember the sound of a teaspoon tingling in a saucer. If it doesn’t make you hanker a little bit for morning tea, check again.

Remember real mail. Your name on a parcel. Something lovely inside.

Remember that someone once invented the crossword. His name was Arthur by the way, and he was a violinist who worked for a newspaper and he made a grid where the words crossed over. He called it a word cross puzzle but the typesetter that day made a mistake printing the paper, so… crossword it is. I kind of thought crosswords had always been around. Imagine the things that don’t exist yet!  

Remember suppressed giggles. You’re supposed to be quiet in maths class. You’re in a staff meeting and someone just did a hilarious mime out the window. Remember the giggle bubbling up. Remember the nose flare. Remember noticing someone else’s shoulders shaking with quiet laughter and trying desperately not to crack. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ve been doing staff meetings all wrong.

Remember all those medical things that people do that are amazing but happen all the time. People use skin from here to patch up skin over there. People trick cancer cells into killing each other. They unloop umbilical cords from around babies’ necks and lift them out into their lives, no worries little mate there you go. We also trick each other, by the way. We go to plays that trick us, and films that trick us, and we read books that remove us from the couch we’re sitting in and take us wherever a made-up story takes us.  So: remember the capacity for human imagination. 

And remember the word dingbat and the last time you felt quietly proud and iced water with a slice of something in it and donuts.

This has been a Public Service Announcement. Remember the good stuff.

This article first appeared in The Big Issue. Please buy the magazine from your local vendor.

Goodbye to summer

Well, we’re nearly there. We’re nearly at the point in the year where summer is well and truly behind us. Here comes autumn, tricking us into believing it’s just a fuzzier summer only with socks and the occasional cardigan. And maybe none of this matters, because no matter what season it is, life just happens. The good bits and the bad bits all happen in whatever order they happen in, and it doesn’t matter if you’re sitting in the sand on a 30 degree day or hunched into the corner of a bus stop waiting for the rain to stop drilling you into the ground, the universe doesn’t discriminate. Lovely sunny days can be catastrophic. Tempests can be lovely. There is something about summer though, isn’t there. A mood brought on by the season that is so strong we like to think it defines who we are as Australians. Be nice, wouldn’t it, to take some of the summer with you, into the next bit? This is a Public Service Announcement. Put some summer in your pocket. Take it with you wherever you’re going next. 

Take the concept of boxing day. Time stretching out like the waistband of your pants. Accidentally reading a book someone else got for Christmas and left on the couch. Eating cold left-overs. The sound of cricket coming from somewhere. No idea what day it is. An uncle, somewhere, almost out of earshot, delivering a lecture on the 1986 grand final/the problem with the health system/architecture during the Weimar Republic, the details of which may or may not be accurate. Nobody needs you to be anywhere.

Take the sound of backyard cricket with you. Someone yelling YES! Dad you’re out! A communal roar. The sound of someone clapping. An impassioned appeal. The occasional roar calling everyone to their positions: car!

Take the next bit too. The apologetic pleasure of driving through the reluctant street parade that is a neighbourhood cricket match disturbed by your approaching car. The speed and choreography of the disassembled game. A lanky kid leaning on the rescued recycling bin wicket. Someone with the bat pillowed up behind their head, hands curled over each end, gaze steady. The friendly but impatient waiting-faces as you slink through. A hand waved in thanks.

Take skinks. Perfectly named, darty little lizard wizards who, when caught by the tail, buck and bite and then, to hell with it, leave their wiggling tails behind completely.

Take animal footprints in the sand. Seagulls. Hysterical dogs. A beetle’s careful tracks from one side of a beach track to the other. 

Take that period between Christmas and New Year. Even if you don’t do Christmas: nobody knows what day it is and time slows down so that by the time you do know the date again you feel like you’ve lived on an island for years and then it turns out it’s only been three days.

In that bit, you might find yourself standing somewhere, staring at something, like a tiny leaf dangling and twisting, suspended by a spider web, and this goes on for so long, this twisting leaf dance, that you realise this sort of thing happens all the time, this leaf-twisting, and that time is, in fact, often slow and quiet and happening where you are not. Keep that bit too.

Take summer fruits. Colourful, enticing, sweet, lazy-making, really good with ice cream.

Take the smell of sunscreen. God it’s awful stuff but the smell will take you instantly to somewhere. Childhood? A suburban swimming pool? Every summer of your entire life?

Take bare feet.

Take new beginnings. An unsullied diary. No unread emails. The untouched sand on the first beach of the year.   

Take the summer certainties. Young shirtless blokes in board shorts riding shopping trolleys through the supermarkets. Skidding to a stop in their bare feet. Thumping each other on the arm. In the trolley, no matter what else: gallons of soft drink, a chicken, and an unfeasible quantity of salt and vinegar chips. Mothers saying things into phones like ask her if she wants it in a size ten. Someone with sunburn in the pattern of something they were wearing yesterday. A dog taking a teenager for a walk.

Take all of that and keep it in your pocket until June. Take it out when you get the flu and it’s freezing and you don’t remember what summer even is. Taste the fruit and the smell the sunscreen. This has been a Public Service Announcement. 

This was written for The Big Issue. Please buy The Big Issue. It’s excellent.

Change the scenery

When you were a baby, you looked at the sky and it swallowed you up. You did. It’s true. When you were sobbing and bellowing and waking the neighbours, someone took you out to look at the stars and your wailing became a small echo in a large universe and you stared at the bigness of things and your brain ate up the distance between you and everything else until you were calm and tired from it and you slept. 

When you were a kid, squabbling and whining and itchy and cross, someone snapped at you to “go for a run around outside” and you did, and when dinner came you could barely hear them call from the tree you were sitting up, the world at your feet, the story in your head. 

When you were an adult, you arrived in a strange city and walked through unfamiliar streets, both more aware of yourself and also of your anonymity, and you learned the rules of how to be a human in this strange new place, like a baby looking at the sky.

Changing the scenery reorients the coordinates. Shifts the focus. Lends perspective. Shame we can’t all hop on a plane and take a dip in the sea off the coast of the Maldives by way of remembering not to stress about the things we haven’t done and the bills we need to pay, but there are other ways of changing the scenery. Look around you. Make small changes. Take a trip without leaving. This is a Public Service Announcement. 

The sky still does it. I don’ know care how old you are. Find the sky at night and look up from the planet your feet are balanced on. Humans have tried to make sense of that mass of gas for billions of years. Stare at it until you see a shooting star and then try and remember what a shooting star is and then go and make a cup of tea. So much better than television. 

Look for a river on a map and go there. Imagine the history the river has seen. Watch how the water hurtles from up to down like it couldn’t care less about your half-yearly performance review or the fact that the neighbour seems to have stolen your recycling bin and your overdue reminder notice is in ALL CAPS.

Read a book. Books take you places for free. 

Do a crazy thing. Sit up the top of a giant tube of PVC in your bathers, your childish heart pumping in your adult chest, the water tumbling violently away before you, and throw yourself full pelt down a waterslide. Go on. I dare you. Little known fact about water slides: they’re time machines. The settings are set to seven-year-old-you. 

Converse with an animal. A dopey dog or a smoodgie cat. A bit of under-the-chin work should do it. No words required.

Turn up to the movies alone. Buy a choc top if you want to. Sit in the cinema by yourself and let someone tell you a story that has nothing to do with you.

Go to a library. You don’t need to read. You don’t need to talk to anybody. Wander around. Ask if you can listen to an audiobook. Look at newspaper from 1816. Watch the people studying and writing their family histories and falling asleep by the heating vents and performing that ducked and hurried walk of shame as they answer a phone call and say things like Hello yes I’m in the - sorry Mum I’m in the - yes, hang on, what do you mean Samantha’s wearing Auntie Mavis’s dress to the wedding? I thought Susan had an objection?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re looking at the sea and your feet are in the sand, those are two very big parts of your life that are not problems. Two very big parts of the wall in relation to which you are small.

The other thing you can do to change your scenery is, of course, to travel. You don’t have to go to the Bahamas. Find the cheapest ticket you can to get the furthest on the train. Somewhere you’ve never been before. A strange place, with walking tracks that lead who-knows-where and new parks with park benches in them that glow in the sun, and houses with windows of warm light that contain people living lives that aren’t yours. 

Sometimes you need someone to take you outside. 

Take yourself outside. 

This has been a Public Service Announcement. 

This first appeared in The Big Issue. Buy it from your vendor when you next see one. It makes a difference, and it’s a bloody good read.

Change the emphasis

Look at everybody! Just look at them! Doing things. Saying things. Living their lives. Who are they all? What are they thinking? Don’t they realise you’re here? Right in front of them? Living your life, full of all the you things? Don’t they realise they’re background noise to all the things you’re dealing with? Can’t they see you dealing? 

And sure, they’re dealing, too, and until there’s a scene in the movie where the you things intersect with the them things, we’re all just living adjacently. But, when you think about it, it’s just a matter of emphasis. So here’s a little experiment. Take the emphasis off the you things for a bit. Refocus it on them. See what happens. This is a Public Service Announcement.

Focus on the laughter. How it changes a person’s whole face. Is a laughing face the truest version of a face? Open and generous and responsive, it’s hard to watch without feeling your own face changing, a kind of built-in laughter empathy passing through you like a fog. 

Watch the teachers. A person in a cafe teaching a trainee how to use the machine. A parent teaching a kid to ride a bike. Good teachers are patient and kind and careful. Often, that moment where a person teaches another person a thing will never be forgotten. Sometimes, the lesson will outlive both the person doing the teaching and the person being taught.

 Overhearing people’s conversations is a great way to take the emphasis off your own life. Listen. Lives are happening all around you. It’s a fact you know, but sometimes it’s nice to be reminded. In the library I’m writing this in, a bloke walked past on a phone just before, saying “That’s not actually what I said Angela”. He  sounded quite cross and I was bit worried about Angela to be honest, but now he’s taken the call outside and I can see him laughing along with her as he balances along a row of bricks as though it’s a tightrope. He and Angela are going to be okay. For now anyway.  

How great is it on summer nights when people leave their front doors open and you’re out walking to dog or whatever but for three precious seconds you accidentally see down their hall, the light belting off the floorboards, a mess of toys in a lounge room, a child riding a trike from one side of the house to the other, and this is someone’s childhood right here. This is someone’s front door, open to the world, as a stranger walks past with a dog. 

Look at the bold people, the exciting people, the provocative people. The brave dressers, the loud talkers, the opinionated, the conscientious objectors, the boundary pushers. Imagine yourself into their lives for a moment. Feel the weight of the difference. 

And the quiet ones. The watchful ones. Try that on for size. Imagine your way into the parts of other people that are the most foreign to you and feel yourself back at the start line. That’s you back there. Hello.

Sit in a public space, a train or a bus or a cafe or a library, and look around you. Who’s your favourite? Who most needs someone to talk to them? Who’s got a pet who loves them? If everyone disappeared in an instant except for the people in this space: who will you stand next to? Who will fall in love with who? Who’s your biggest obstacle? Which one can cook? Who’s the talker? Who’s everyone going to underestimate?

In your own life, not many people have been around forever. You met them when you met them. Or did you? Had you walked past some of them without knowing? Had you “excuse me”d a person who would one day become your friend? There’s no way of telling, not really, which means: all around you, all the time, are potential friends. 

People are confusing and terrible and wonderful and hilarious and complicated and maybe so are you. Trying someone else’s life on for size, even if only for the moment you get a glimpse down their hallway, can be really good for your life health. So if you’re ever getting a bit sick of yourself, take the dog for a walk. Be the background noise to all the stuff other people are dealing with. Change the emphasis. This has been a Public Service Announcement. 


This was originally a column in The Big Issue. Buy the magazine on the streets from a vendor why don’t you!

Happy New Year!

Happy new year! What a momentous occasion! What a time to reflect! What a meaningful yardstick against which to measure our hopes and dreams! What a fabulous time to make resolutions. Because tomorrow, everything is going to be better. We’re going to be smarter, and fitter and more morally upstanding. We’re going to be charming and attractive and rich and witty and correct. Everything before now has been a shambolic accident, a reckless mistake, or somebody else’s fault. None of that applies now. Nope! Not anymore. Now, we have better friends, smarter ideas, boundless resolve, and new notebooks in which to plan it all. 

Here’s to the new you. Here’s to self-improvement. Here’s to your inevitable rise over the next 365 days while those around you, astonished, flail without a plan, sans notebook, the new year dribbling into drudgery before their very eyes.

Except here’s the thing. Time is arbitrary and a lot of things happen despite notebooks and planning. And that’s okay. Here are some things that are okay. This is a Public Service Announcement.

Ice cream is nice. Even vegan ice cream is nice. It just looks fun, doesn’t it, ice cream, and then you get a frozen ball of sweetness in your face on a hot day. Balanced on a waffle cone, I mean what a world.

That thing where you’re standing in the street and it’s just you and then the street lights quietly flick on and you look around like, “is anyone getting this?” but it’s not momentous enough to tell anybody so it’s just you and the street lights who know.  

 In fact, that kind of feels a little bit like that other excellent thing that happens, where you learn a word you’ve never heard before and then you hear it on the radio in the car a few days later and think “Ha! How about that!” and then someone says it in a cafe a couple of days later and you look at them as though maybe they’ve been spying on you and then you read it in a book and you think “oh come on, universe”. This phenomenon has been given a name: the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. The fact that it has been given a name means that someone had that happen enough that they wanted to share it with other people, because just like the street lights going on, it’s just a lonely moment in the universe between you and a word, until it’s a named phenomenon someone can write into a crossword clue. 

Gardens exploding over the top of fences are lovely.

Overheard bits of dialogue between people whose lives are not yours are sometimes just interesting enough to take you out of yourself for a minute, and that’s a phenomenon that should have a name. The other day, I was in a cafe and I heard two people from music shops talking excitedly together in a booth in the corner. One of them, a man with a moustache, had just been estimating that he did “half a million in violins and cellos per year”. He stopped suddenly after that, leant conspiratorially in and lowered his voice. “Tell me”, he said, “What’s your approach to the flute problem?” Other people’s lives are happening around us all the time. You just never know what they might be dealing with. The flute problem, for instance. 

Clay is nice. Dug your hands into some clay lately? Tried making something with those hands of yours? Give it a burl. It’s really quite something to get lost in a craft for a few hours.

Comfortable slippers are just the business.

Reading in the bath. Some people hate it, but for those who don’t: reading in the bath is one of life’s pure joys and I commend it to you.

Write it down. Doesn’t matter what it is: your worries, the story of your parents, a To Do list. Don’t think of an audience for it. Just write it. See what happens. 

New year’s resolutions are fine. Sometimes they even work. That feeling of the ”new year“ feeling new and hopeful can be a good thing, too. But it doesn’t represent the fall of humanity when life doesn’t quite live up to your shiny new version of things. Find an exploding garden. Put on some comfortable slippers. Have an ice cream. Lovely things are everywhere, no matter what day of the year it is. This has been a Public Service Announcement. 

This was originally an article in The Big Issue. Please buy the magazine from your local vendor.

Alien invasion

Hey. So. Quick question: say an alien came to earth, right? Took you aside. Wanted a few words. Say this alien wanted to make a whole new world somewhere out in the galaxy based on only the good bits of this world. You totally get an invite, but they need your help compiling the list of good things for the reboot.

I’m guessing you’d quite sensibly be listing important stuff like love and friendship and world peace and antibiotics and Netflix and so forth. And that’s great. Good for you. Those things are important. But it’s always good to be prepared. The worst thing would be to be beamed up onto this brand new planet you’ve helped invent, and to feel a longing, a nostalgia, for something left behind.

So look around you. What’s worth saving? You’d be surprised how many people, when confronted by an alien, forget the little things. Don’t be that person. Seek out the quietly delightful. This is a Public Service Announcement.

Don’t forget lemon zest icing.

Don’t forget reading in the bath.

Don’t forget the improbability of passionfruit. Wrinkly brown balls that grow on vines alongside the most incredible 3D flowers that appear to have been made by teams of Japanese designers and which, when sliced in half, leak a syrup full of seeds which you can spread on ice cream to make it taste even better for heaven’s sake. How did the universe come up with that? So make sure you get the alien to write down “the improbability of passionfruit” as an essential ingredient for a new world. Who knows where it will lead? That’s called innovation.

Don’t forget how, when you swim in the ocean and then look in the mirror afterwards, you can see how the salt has organised itself in line with your eyebrows. Eyebrow sea salt. An important component of the universe. 

Beach hair is a related but important factor in the world as we know it. The best beach hair is the beach hair where you barely recognise yourself in the mirror and the possibility begins to present itself that if you continued like this you could, in fact, become a different person entirely.

Don’t forget that thing where you see something someone has left somewhere - a pair of spectacles on a newspaper or a configuration of toys that makes sense only to the child who left them there - and their whole personality seems to be echoed in the way those objects are placed in the world. The fact that those objects, placed like that, make you quietly smile in their absence.

The inner peace achieved upon the completion of a desk clean.

Sideways grins.

Sandwiches.

The feeling of wanting to exclaim out loud about an outrageous twist in a book you’re reading.  

Accidental dozing.

Animal friendships.

The kind of laughter where you genuinely worry you might not be able to breathe and then you start thinking about the laughter itself and it’s the act of laughing that makes you laugh more.

Intergenerational hand-holding.

Expressions like “it dawned on me” and “I changed my mind” which we use every day but which are actually really clever when you think about it.

Watching people do really skilled things that don’t happen in your life because your life has no call for them but then you see the skilled people do the thing and you can’t stop staring and vaguely wondering if your life would be better if you too were a glass blower/circus clown/diving champion - and also just quietly the more you watch the more you think you’ve actually got this figured, this glass blowing/circus/diving business. You watch a backwards pike dive with a twist and you know, for sure, that the Canadian will be disappointed with that one, because watching skilled people teaches you things too.

Porridge. 

The mutual glee of sitting in an audience electrified by excellence.

Lying in the grass looking up.

The feeling of pride rising up through your chest that happens when someone you love excels themselves and you have to watch from a distance so all you can do is stand where you are in silence while they play the recorder or win an award or say something smart or take a splinter out of a dog’s foot or whatever it is. Silent, lonely pride. Keep that too. 

You’ll have others. Look around you. Or don’t. Close your eyes. Think of the little things. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This originally appeared in The Big Issue. Buy it from vendors whenever you get the chance.

You Don't Exist

Sometimes, when things are annoying or overwhelming or depressing or infuriating and it’s building to a frisson of impotent fury and you feel like stomping your foot at the universe, the worst thing about it is that you’ve been here before. The worst thing is that this is so you. You’re the common element. You’re the one who always ends up standing in the middle of the world in a hot fury at yourself for not being better at life. It’s your fault. You’re too flaky, too bossy, too much of a dork, too messy, too lazy, too hopeless to get it together and be a real life human like everybody else. 

Here’s the thing though. Public Service Announcement: some scientists say that we don’t even have selves. That the self is a just a feeling. The ego is merely a neurological accident and that we tell ourselves these adorable little narratives as an organising principal, to help us  make sense of things. I understand that this may not be immediately comforting, but in some ways at least, it’s a helpful idea. Yes, you might be standing in the centre of the supermarket with raw egg running down your sleeve because you didn’t get a basket because you NEVER get a basket and now you are holding TOO MANY THINGS and an EGG EXPLODED because you are SO INFURIATING like that but no! It’s actually not me! There is no me! Not really. This is all just a cultural narrative being imposed onto a series of random events in a universe of which I am a small part. Just a series of cells, bouncing around. 

This is a Public Service Announcement. Forget the self. Lose the narrative. Observe the small elements that make up the fabric of the universe. 

Observe the way crowds move like they’re one entity, crossing the road from a football stadium like an arrow, dancing in the dying light at a music festival like one mass rising and falling with the beat. Riding bikes in a pack that narrows and thickens according to the corners. Behold the majestic tomfoolery of a Mexican wave.  

Notice how the unremarkable swallows and starlings of the daytime are transformed in the evening into lithe and showy circus clowns, dipping, weaving, backflipping and swooping through the clouds of insects as the sun disappears and the air is cool and still.

Notice the special kind of tired your feet get after running or walking on sand.

Stare at the night sky. Try and unlearn everything you know about it. Lose the narrative. Forget trying to figure out where the pan handle is. Forget the milky way and the science and the religion and just stand there and look at what happens to the sky when the lights go out.

Think about how amazing it is that air is constantly moving through you and also through everyone else and nobody ever talks about it and we can totally multitask and do it while doing almost every other thing in the world. 

Think about the human desire for narrative and metaphor. How we use it to make sense of things, to figure each other out, to learn about who we are. We write and we read and we tell stores and we fantasise. We use storytelling in marketing and psychology and architecture and politics and cinema and even in maths and science. It’s comforting and helpful and manipulative and lovely and maybe if you need to be reminded of it, it’s a good time to read a book.

Think of the fact that if it’s true that the self doesn’t exist, then neither do other people. That is to say, they exist, but only as stories. Stories you tell each other, by way of having a relationship. That means that when they’re gone, they’re not actually gone, they’re part of the story you’ve internalised. 

Too much? Causing existential angst? Fine. Think of cheese and chocolate and cups of tea and eating a really nice sandwich with a water view and new socks on. Think of holding hands. Think of crying in a movie. Think of clean sheets and watermelons and your favourite person’s hair shampoo and the feeling of discovering you are being watched by a solitary cockatoo.

Maybe we don’t exist in precisely the self-centred way we like to imagine. Maybe we do. Either way, pulling back the focus on the narrative can be helpful. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This first appeared in The Big Issue. Please support your local vendor.

Think about their teapot

Hello and welcome to this bit! You will need: nothing. Not a thing. Zilch. Leave it all behind. This bit is an obligation free bit. No shipping fees. No “administration costs”. You won’t get a parking fine or a late fee. You don’t need to bring a present or a plate. You don’t even need to get public transport. Just step into this bit. Stand here. Take a moment. Have a think. Nobody else will bother you. It’s just you, hanging off the edge of the world, having a bit of a think. Want some things to think about? Don’t worry. It’s not a BYO situation, not unless you want. We have a long list. So here are some things to think about in this bit. This is a Public Service Announcement. 

Think of the smell of brand new knitwear.

Think about the feeling of having a much-needed shower. Everything thick and heavy falling away, just a little bit, with the water.

Think of the first belting wave coming at you in the surf. Ducking under. The silence. Emerging with a roar.

Think about the person you most like to visit. Think about their teapot. Their towels. The hand-cream in their bathroom. Think of how their sheets smell. Think of how different it is from every other place on earth and how generous it is to show another person all of that and how that person is you. 

Think of magnolia trees and hundreds-and-thousands and the fact that they are called hundreds-and-thousands and also bicycles and the colour turquoise.

Think of the sound of an ice cream truck late on a summer afternoon. 

Think about sparklers. Who invented sparklers? Fire you can hold in your hand! Fire that explodes in beautiful sparks right into the faces of small children who have never seen anything like it before and who are up well past their bedtime. Fire that costs a dollar for a packet of twelve and can make you the most fun auntie or uncle on planet earth.

Think about how you could have a line in someone else’s life. You could be the first person who is nice to someone all day. You could be the person who helps someone get to the person they love. “Oh yes”, you might say, “The airport is that way” and maybe, just maybe, that person will change directions and gets to the airport just in time. I know a man whose family came to Australia with brand new Australian visas a few decades ago. They approached the official at the airport. He took their passports, stamped them, then leaned forward and said “welcome home”. That guy got his line right. Try and get your lines right. You never know what impact they might have.

Think about music. How did music even happen? People experimenting with banging and sawing away at things and now look: there are music shops and concerts and musicals and rock stars and people teaching other people how to play and sing right across the world. Without the innate human desire to feel music soaring through our nervous systems, none of it would exist.

Think about the way people communicate when they can’t speak the same language. The mimes they do. The gestures. It is surprising how quickly humans can find ways to understand each other. 

Think of a bird coming in to land on water. Imagine that lovely draggy-feet thing they sometimes do that stretches a huge V-shape out across the surface of the water.

Imagine the feeling of doing something you can no longer do. A dive off the big kids’ board. A handstand. A cartwheel. Rolling down a hill without stopping. Getting a dink on a bike. 

Think of the feeling of rolling over from a sleep-in and having nowhere to be. The light coming in from somewhere and outside the sounds of Saturday.

Think of the singular sensation of going for a walk and stumbling upon an animal you didn’t expect to see. The shock of the moment of discovery. The animal watching you. You watching it. Nobody else to tell. Don’t want to move to photograph it. But somewhere nearby a branch snaps and it hurtles off and you’re standing, the reverence falling away into something approaching foolishness. “I saw a wallaby” never quite captures the magic.

Think of these things and other things or no things at all. Feel free to stay in this bit for as long as you like. This has been a Public Service Announcement. 

This column first appeared in The Big Issue. Buy The Big Issue when you can - now you can even do t with a card instead of cash.

The Simple Things

Sometimes, despite all of life’s complications, things can be really simple. 

You might go to the doctor, for instance, because you feel completely rotten. You might hope that the complex history of medicine is going to help you out. You might discover though that all the doctor says is something unscientific and borderline parental like “you need to get some rest” which might make you think “Ha! Rest! You obviously don’t understand my life” and then go home and pass out face-first on the bed for eighteen hours and dream of you and the barista from your local cafe trying to escape from your old high school, which is (a fact that for some reason does not surprise you) underwater, and then maybe you wake up and it’s a whole other day and you realise actually maybe you need some rest. Or maybe this isn’t a universal experience.

Point is, in the 21st century, that’s what we’ve come up with for when we get sick. Get some rest. Pass out and your body will repair itself for reasons we don’t quite comprehend. We also don’t really understand sleep, or dreams. Because some things remain simple. 

Not everything is complicated. This is a Public Service Announcement. 

Leaves are simple. Complex in design, sophisticated in function (they are, after all, constantly engaged in the act of saving our lives) but hold two leaves from the same tree in your hand and you will notice that, like all excellent design, they look so simple you wish you’d thought of it yourself.

The unadulterated thrill of a puppy. The unadulterated thrill of two puppies! So simple. So pure. So hard not to be delighted.

The thumbs-up gesture. Never improved upon. Always helpful across a crowded room. Nobody needs to write any research papers on how to improve that one. 

The feeling of being in the middle of a thoroughly exhilarating entertainment experience. Your team winning the grand final. A gig that lights you up. A comedian whose words feel like the first words in the world. 

Eggs on toast.

A cup of tea.

Holding somebody’s hand.

The fact that a banana comes in the packaging.

The smell that takes you back. Happens in an instance. Lifts you out of yourself and reminds you of yourself, all at once.

The irrepressible smile and hands-to-your-face breath-holding of pure pride in someone you love achieving something. A kid on stage at the school concert. A friend who just got the job. The fact that humans can want to cry with happiness because of how someone else feels is really quite incredible. 

Reading. Leaving your own life for a bit, without having to move an inch.

A friendship, however bonkers, with an animal. Whatever else might be going on in your life, if you have someone to trip over in the kitchen who also really likes being scrunched behind the ears, you’re doing okay.

The sea. It’s such a simple idea, so well executed. A big well done to everybody involved.

Honeycomb. Genius architecture, excellent example of several mathematical principles, tastes incredible. Again, my compliments to the whole team.

Accents.

The fact that we are not our enemies. For we wouldn’t wish that on anybody. Not even our worst enemies. Which means… even our worst enemies are being justly punished. 

Cicadas on a summer night.

The expression “God’s green earth”, especially when deployed by women of a certain age who are incredulous about their partners. “Where on God’s green earth he found all those golf balls I cannot tell you”, for example. Or “Where on God’s green earth did you put those scissors, darl?” There is something intrinsically hilarious about this that I cannot put my finger on, and when it is delivered well, it is affectionate and funny and speaks well of everybody involved.

 The couple of kids I saw the other day counting their coins before going into a shop and emerging with an icy pole, which they then shared out the front of the shop, handing it back and forth while chatting. One of them occasionally bounced a tennis ball. Only once, while one kid had it for slightly longer, did the other kid do a “come on, my turn” gesture. Nice to know an icy pole is still the best value for money. Nice to know people still share coins for treats.

Sometimes, things are vexed and complex and confusing. Not always. Read a book. Share an icy pole. Go simple. This has been a Public Service Announcement. 

This was originally printed in The Big Issue. Please buy a Big Issue when you next get a chance.

Tiny changes

Spring is such a deceptive season. Full of promise and pregnant with metaphor, it taunts us with a whiff of summer, but never quite lets us forget about winter. The wind snarls up when we least expect it. The evenings drop suddenly away into night. And here we are, a residual cough, a tissue still in the inside pocket of a jacket. Still tired. So tired. Has anything really changed? Will anything ever change?

But of course. Things are changing all the time. Look around. See the tiny changes. The new things. The small shifts that happen in time. This is a Public Service Announcement.

See the tiny green shoots diving sideways out of flower stems, hurling themselves at the sun. Try to read it as anything other than gleeful, hungry, blind enthusiasm. You can’t. 

Notice the way new friendships can be kind of performative, with everyone putting their best foot forward, and then sometimes there’s a little moment when someone lets their guard down, and sometimes that moment can be super important. Like when I overheard a young guy at a train station recently saying to a girl he was there with, “Actually, I don’t know who that is. Is he a rapper? I was just saying I knew because Jason was making me look like an idiot.” The girl, who obviously wasn’t a close friend, looked at him then, and smiled. “You don’t want to listen to Jason,” she said. ”Jason can’t play Livin’ on a Prayer on the piano, can he?” and then they looked out the window together, and Jason, who didn’t even get a say in it, was elsewhere, significantly diminished.

Witness an aeroplane farting a fluffy trail through the sky. There’s not a lot about that scenario that isn’t amazing.

Enjoy the mist evaporating off wet tarmac in the morning sun or the sun disappearing slightly more slowly than it used to. 

Anthropomorphise everything in your line of vision except the people. Imagine the trees and the buildings are animate. See the history they’ve seen. Look at us down there. Hello us!

Change everything: art yourself. Go to a gallery. Read a book. Listen to something. Sit in a cinema in the dark and fold another universe into your mind for a couple of hours. Extra points if you do it alone.

Listen to the conversations around you in your day. Hear the gear changes in other people’s lives. The man on the train lending quiet support to his partner at home with their baby. The couple discussing their weekend plans. Two friends analysing a relationship problem (“yes but it shouldn’t always be you making the sacrifices, Jen, that’s the thing”). What’s going to happen in these people’s stories? The relationship, obviously, is doomed. That much is clear simply from the muted exasperation of the friend and the middle-distance stare of Jen… but maybe we’re all wrong about Jen. Maybe Jen knows in her heart of hearts what her partner just can’t see himself. She knows his potential better than he does. Give it a couple of years, maybe, and Jen’s friend will be seeing wedding pictures on Facebook and in a rush of regret she might just find herself wishing she hadn’t said those things that day about sacrifices. And the baby, the one with the quiet-talking Dad, has at the very least had a solid start and maybe this conversation, the one on the train, is the conversation that eases his mother, sitting in the suburbs with the dishes to do and the To Do List swimming on the calendar before her, eases her into the afternoon and out of her anxiety and maybe she will remember it always. The weekending couple, going their separate ways now, kissing lightly as they part, share a mutual joke as they look back at one another, rolling their eyes and shaking their heads and you know what? I think those two are going to be okay too. You never know, but you could be standing right in the middle of a significant moment of change, which has nothing whatsoever to do with you.

Look at the tops of buildings. The bottom halves of buildings are plastered with new stuff - signs that shout things like “SALE NOW!” or fresh graffiti or new signage. People forget about the top halves of buildings, though, so they stay as they always were, stuck in a time warp, ancient and untouched. It’s a lovely way to remind yourself that this bit, like all the other bits, is only happening right down the bottom near the SALE NOW sign. There are lots of other bits, in lots of other places, and some of those places have beaches.

See? Tiny change everywhere. Nature and art and aeroplane farts. It’s all happening while you’re standing still. Move about a bit. You never know what might happen. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This is from The Big Issue. Please buy The Big Issue when you see a vendor.

Subplots are everywhere

Well done. Congratulations. What a wild ride, huh? What an adventure. Life! Full of twists and turns. Not for the faint hearted, am I right? 

Want to take a quick break? Little lie down? Teensy nap? No worries. Step this way. We’ll just press pause on the universe for a bit.

Except, ah, we can’t. Humans, though occasionally clever, haven’t figured out how to pause time quite yet. 

What you can do though, if you’re getting a bit sick of the main storyline, is to notice the sub-plots. Glance at a few of the smaller characters. Glimpse the possibilities for future plot twists. Enjoy the scenery. Step back from the central story. It will sort itself out. Indulge in the rich detail of the world you’re in.  This is a Public Service Announcement. 

Notice the setting. Imagine it written on the page for a reader for whom this is magical realism. How on earth would you describe a rainbow, or the feeling of having had a shower, or why it is a human instinct to dip and surf your hand into the breeze out a car window or cartwheel on a beach?

Look up crown shyness. It’s the effect you see when you peer up at a tall tree and all the branches avoid jutting into one another’s personal space. It’s a total mystery why tree branches are shy of one another. Hopefully nobody figures it out and it remains a noble, gentle secret that happens around us all the time, only to be noticed by people who take the time to look up.  

Seriously, the setting is often the most amazing part. Look at open fires. Look at skyscrapers with the sun belting off them and the clouds reflected in their windows. Look at the way rain comes down the bus window and some of the bigger drops use the little drops to catch up with further down drops and get up so much speed they create whole highways. Just like crown shyness, this wonderful raindrop magnetism happens all the time. Little worlds of movement and activity, a kind of natural logic, that have nothing to do with whatever it is you’re worried about.

Other great elements of the set not to be disregarded include sheds, donut vans, little winding paths carved out in the bush, hills kids can roll down, and second-hand bookshops. 

Think about the characters. The people. The ones you know. The ones you don’t know. The fact that right now, in this instance, while you’re reading this, someone is experiencing a momentous event. Someone - NOW! - just this second, heart thumping, head full of sound - finally took the plunge and kissed someone. NOW! - this very second - the lights went down and the audience went silent on someone’s opening night and her heart flipped like a fish.  

Think about your favourite side characters. The ones you don’t see enough of but when they have a scene you sit back and really enjoy it.

Think of the special effects. The feeling of wearing new shoes. The way moisturiser feels after a walk on a windy beach. A thunderstorm. Icing.

There are other effects too. What about the bizarre non-human characters. The monsters. Bears. Crocodiles. Snakes. Politicians who snap “If I could just answer your question” at journalists before steadfastly not answering the question or indeed any question ever. Monsters are great to think about because you’re not one. You’re a human in a world where crocodiles and bears and snakes and Peter Dutton exist so you’re doing quite well really. 

Isn’t the lighting lovely. The way a car driving past in the street outside can send a triangle of light driving across your ceiling, elongating and then disappearing with the sound of the car. The way afternoon shadows make you feel a bit happy and a bit sad when really all that’s happening is that a series of objects are interrupting the sun’s journey to earth.

The sound design can be spectacular too. The sound of someone making a cup of tea in the other room: superb. The sound of beach cricket. The ABC news wafting like the smell of a Sunday roast from someone’s house when you’re walking the dog. The final siren at the footy. A bell bird. A sprinkler. The distant, insistent sound of church bells on a Sunday.

When you have a look at the mise en scene of life, you realise you’re  a small part of a series of intertwined narratives. Remember to enjoy the film. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This is one of my columns commissioned by and printed in The Big Issues. Thanks to the Big Issue readers for having me, and please, when you can, buy a copy from a vendor.

Look sideways

We’re into the thick of it now, aren’t we? Eh? Good luck looking sideways!

Actually though, have you looked sideways lately? Sideways can be quite interesting. All kinds of things are happening just outside the frame. Stop what you’re doing. Have a quick look around. Go on. You might be surprised. This is a Public Service Announcement. 

Look sideways at someone you don’t know. Notice how they organise themselves. How their bag is packed or their clothes are tucked. What do they do with their hands and feet when they’re not using them? Are they watchful or wary? When do you think they’re most gentle? When did they last talk to an animal? Who likes them the most? The way a person sits or stands or packs a bag says a lot about who they are.

Notice nature. It’s usually somewhere, even if it shouldn’t be.

Find some wattle. Catch the smell of it. The puffy big yellow pom pom wattle, the skinny little weird sticks of it. Listen to it. Is it humming? Bees know where all the great wattle is.

Have a look at some clouds. Actual, legitimate old-school clouds in the sky. Drifty and also hurtling like the clappers. 

Sometimes, just out of frame, you notice little weird things that don’t mean anything but they’re nice anyway. The other day, my sunglasses fell down my face a bit and it was a cold morning and I was doing something with my hands so I left the glasses perched down the bottom of my nose for a minute and I could see my breath making clouds of condensation on my lenses, just in the bottom bit of my peripheral vision while I focused on something else. While I finished rummaging in my bag I realised what it was reminding me of, the breath clouds ballooning and disappearing, ballooning and disappearing. It was mimicking, I realised, the tide. In. Out. In. Out. The tide was going in and out on my sunglasses in fast forward. It felt, then, rather than annoying, pleasantly relaxing, and I found myself feeling a bit rude interrupting the tide to push the glasses up my nose.

Sideways hugs are nice.

Take a shortcut to a place you’d never go on your own accord: read a book you’d never select for yourself. Maybe not the whole thing. Give it a chapter. Maybe all it will teach you is that you prefer watching Netflix. So what? Good to have your instincts confirmed, right? Maybe, though, you’ll find yourself still reading it, stiff from having not moved, hours later, in a whole other world you never knew existed.

Go for a walk a dinner time. Listen to the sound of cutlery. Smell the neighbours’ lasagne.

Think of a person who wasn’t in your life seven years ago, and is now, and it’s good, and seven-years-ago-you had no idea. 

Contemplate the lovely things humans make with their hands like ceramic bowls and quilts and and home-made football scarves and cubby houses and tea.

Hear a far off siren not as an alarming or depressing sound but as a symbol of society at is best. People have developed an ingenious system whereby they can rush to the the aid of each other, notifying others to move out of the way, which, for the most part, despite everything, they do. What a bunch of champions we can be when we put our minds to it, eh? Good on us.

Sometimes, light does interesting things, even in ugly or boring places. Like how sometimes when you’re sick in bed and you wake at night and use your phone as a torch and the light pings off the silver lozenge packaging and through a half-empty drink bottle and suddenly there’s an accidental kaleidoscope made of unpretty things projecting spectacular light puppetry on your wall.

Any moment you get to witness two friends greeting each other in a back-slapping hello is a privilege and a pleasure and I don’t care who knows it.

Also: apples are excellent. If you need to be shifted out of yourself and also you’re hungry, you can do a lot worse than an apple. It’s a gorgeous aesthetic bulb of perfection, into which you may bite or slice, and which contains a magical combinations of enzymes, natural sugar and vitamins that actually has the effect of waking you up.

Look sideways. It’s interesting, even when it isn’t. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This is from a fortnightly column I write for The Big Issue. Buy it when you can. It’s full of lovely things.

Small Talk

Is it safe to say small talk is getting harder? Is there anything left to discuss without dipping suddenly and dramatically into a deep dive of mutual horror? “Hello. How’s your day been? Heard the news?” No! Not the news! Good grief no. Anything but the news. How about… the weather? Yeesh. Didn’t think so. Sport! Good, clean, healthy sport… with its… cheats… and its… misogyny… and its… NEVER MIND SHOOSH LET’S JUST SIT HERE IN SILENCE.

Small talk is, essentially, a mutual attempt to unite strangers in a suspended moment of casual regard while time passes. To avoid content that is important, or meaningful, or threatening, or worrying. We don’t want to expend unnecessary emotional energy discussing the fall of western capitalism with a person who is selling us groceries and who is labelled SAMANTHA if we can at all avoid it. For Samantha’s sake, and for ours.

Thus we avoid speaking to each other properly lest we say anything. Most of the time that’s because it’s ten minutes until your car park expires and Samantha is about to go on break. 

Here’s the thing, though. We’re communicating all the time. We’re actually very good at it. There are little moments of connection all around us. So here’s to them. Forget the main action. Ignore the plot and the dialogue. Look in the background at all the other things going on. This is a Public Service Announcement.  

Someone ahead of you on the escalator stepping to the left because they hear you coming: communication.

A cat head-butting you at a bus stop: communication.

Locking eyes with a person at a train station while you’re on a train that has just started moving and the pair of you have nothing to lose so you just look, without self-consciousness, for three large seconds: connection.

That thing where you’re crossing the road and the pedestrian light starts to flash red and there’s a car waiting to turn and you perform for them a hurried walk that actually isn’t much faster than your real walk: communication.

I was in an office recently and a person trotted over to her manager’s office. Needed quick approval for something. Knocked on the door while reading over something complex to make sure she had it all in order. Manager was on the phone, which wasn’t obvious from outside the door, so she turned, the manager, in her swivel chair. Really gave it a hefty spin so that she faced her visitor at the door while simultaneously talking on the phone. She held her finger up - one minute! - while smiling, and the spin kept going so that the colleague with the question, now leaning in the doorframe, was smiling at the jovial movement of her manager, spinning, still, in jaunty circles with her finger aloft, dealing most seriously with this person on the phone who had no idea she was rotating at speed. A lot is said about “workplace culture” but if there could be more spinny-chair-type managers that would be nice. Spinny boss and her door-leaning colleague then had a brief, friendly, informative chat, and each went back to work, an in-joke shouted over a shoulder on the way out. The spin in the chair was the most important element of communication, though, of that there is no doubt.

Reaching over and taking food from someone else’s plate: incredible act of intimacy. 

The way humans communicate with each other using coded visual symbolism, deploying aesthetics to convey stories, feelings and desires. Yes there’s film and art, but walk past your favourite bookshop. Look at the window display. The way the books are fanned. The way the colours work. The little stationery items in the glass jars near the counter. Someone in the bookshop is selling you an idea; the idea of what you might become if you open the door and then the front cover of a book. Google “the art of window displays”. And sure, this is capitalism writ large. It’s actually called, awfully, “visual merchandising”, but the instinct is no different from the human desire to design a lovely garden out the front of a home with a carefully swept path and a cute little letterbox. It’s communicating, visually, an idea. And the idea is: you’re welcome here. Come in. You’ll love it. 

Small talk might be getting harder but remember: no talk is also good. The unspoken stuff. The spinny chairs and the food theft and a strange cat and a house. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This column originally appeared in The Big Issue, which you should buy whenever you can.

Nice View

Hello. How’s the view from there? What can you see? A street? A room? An office? A carpark? The entire history of humanity? Probably not that last one. Usually, we just see what’s in front of us. Sometimes, we don’t even see that.

Have another look. Take in all the things you get to see thanks to the entire history of humanity.

This is a Public Service Announcement.

Look up. People forget to look up. Notice the sky. Notice the top parts of buildings you usually walk past the boring bottoms of. Notice roofing and old signage and bird life and a glowing top floor window with someone playing a violin in it and guttering that needs to be attended to and telephone wires slicing up the clouds.

Watch how children move. Apparently, children only eat when they’re hungry. Adults eat for many reasons, most of them emotional. Because they’re tired, anxious, depressed, or standing next to a bowl of chips while talking to someone at a barbecue. With movement, it seems like the opposite. Adults almost always move with purpose: to get somewhere. To be fit. To keep warm. Kids move constantly, for no reason other than to experience the feeling of moving. They hang upside down. They stand on one leg or lean or balance or flip. Kids move in a way that pays the human body the compliment of deploying everything it has to offer.

Look for the strongest bit of nature you can see.

Enjoy how people communicate wordlessly. The “you right?” eyebrow raise. Or “you coming into the lift?” A thank you smile. A “go ahead without me” hand gesture. There’s a kindness to these. A generosity that words can diminish.

Or when there’s a person standing behind a car backing into a carpark and the standing-behind-person does the “closer, closer, closer” hand signal once, twice, three times… and then the “woah!” hand, before nodding “you’re welcome” at a wave of thanks from the driver, and trotting across the road like a hero.

Or how sometimes, there are things you can do to indicate accelerated emotional support. Like when someone lets you into traffic and they’re not in your line of vision but it was a big gesture on their part so you open the window and stick your arm out for an open-air “thanks” wave to the car behind you. Or when you’re at a concert or the theatre or a gig and there is one performer who just nailed it, who just spoke to you, and you’re already clapping but then it’s their turn to be applauded and you do that thing where you clap in the air but you do it higher, like “this one’s for you”.

Notice the colours. Notice how many colours you can be looking at without registering them. Notice the ugly things with lovely colours and the lovely things that are boringly coloured.

Find your favourite source of light.

See if there’s anyone helping anyone else. Witnessing people helping other people is one of life’s great privileges. The instinct to help is so strong, you can find it all through the entire history of humanity, even in the worst bits. Especially in the worst bits.

Look at the people who are doing things while doing other things. Like tossing something and catching it while listening to someone speak, or making a line on the table with some stray sugar while talking on the phone. Like their conscious minds are occupied doing something else for a bit and the subconscious gets to have a bit of a play while nobody’s paying attention.

When you see a tiny aeroplane in the sky, do you see a tiny aeroplane or do you picture all the people on it? Sitting in the air above you. Some with colouring books. Some watching Goldie Hawn movies. Some of them completing a regular commute and others excited for their first real adventure. Just a few hundred people flying through your day on their way to, perhaps, the other side of the planet you’re standing on. All those thoughts, whizzing by, above you.

Locate the best climbing tree. If you were to go and climb a tree now, which would you pick? What would it feel like, to stand up there, bare feet grasping a high branch, leaves in your hair, scratches on your hands, and the kind of quiet you don’t get anywhere else except up a tree.

Great view from where you are. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This originally appeared in The Big Issue. Please support vendors when you can.

Avoid the priorities

Things can be quite lovely, can’t they? This is a Public Service Announcement.

Sometimes, even just for a little moment, life can lift you out of yourself for a bit and make you realise you’ve been focusing on the priorities. 

Big mistake, always focusing on the priorities. If you’re focusing on priorities all the time, everything is urgent and that is no way to live.

Nice to be reminded, occasionally, that prioritising the urgent isn’t the answer to everything. Good to pause and enjoy that feeling of life gently shaking you free. 

Sometimes, for instance, you’ll catch something mundane - or even ugly - looking really quite beautiful and perfect. Like how after a rainstorm, the leaves have been tugged by the water into a perfectly arranged leaf installation over the storm drain, spiralling out towards you like a flower arrangement, welcoming and celebratory. 

Or how, in big cities where there are lights in the footpath pointing up at the sky, they’re sometimes warmer than the night air, so you get to see a row of light beams, vertical like poles of gentle, rising steam.

Or the moment when you’re walking along at night and you become freshly gobsmacked by the moon, huge and orange and improbable in the sky, or doing that thing where there’s a bright, thin crescent of a bowl down the bottom balancing a shadowy sphere on top.

Also nice how, when you see things like this, by yourself, on your way somewhere, if you take the time to pause and photograph them so you can share it with someone else, it doesn’t work. The photograph looks like a pile of leaves or a flat light on a footpath or a distant toenail in the murky dark. It’s as though the universe is insisting this is a moment just for you and your lonely brain. The only way to externalise the moment is to pause slightly in your thinking. Maybe say “huh”. Maybe not.

Small social conspiracies. When you’re talking to someone at a party for instance, and you see someone else coming. “What’s his name?” you quietly ask the person you’re speaking to. “The guy in the shirt”. She’s got three seconds to turn inconspicuously and tell you. “Spencer!” she says to him as he approaches, and you feel relief course through you because Spencer, when he sees you, calls you by your name more often than any other human on earth. He turns to hug her while you mime “thank you” over his shoulder and she smiles. Little human moments of connection across a crowded room. 

Or that thing where you’re walking with an animal or a small child and you’re holding groceries and you need to go to the toilet and also you’re very tired and the person ahead of you probably hasn’t seen you because he’s got headphones on and he seems in his own world but when he gets to the door in front of you he waits, not breaking character, not looking anything other than slightly bored and totally absorbed in his own business, until at the last second, while waiting for you and your entourage to shuffle shambolically through the door he is holding open, he flicks you a “you’re welcome” smile that betrays a thoughtfulness that started way before you even noticed the door-opening was even a distant possibility.

Steam rising off porridge.

The fact that hopscotch is still a thing.

The fact that, walking across a chalked and abandoned hopscotch patch on a footpath, even the most adult adult will have to suppress the instinct to hop and leap across it like a seven-year-old.

Bubbles.

Getting warm after being too cold.

Bird squabble.

The kind of tired you only get from reading. Tired right in the middle of your brain.

The way you can sometimes see the wind buffeting the rain like the tide is coming in in the air all around you. 

The way Scrabble pieces sound when they clink together and it reminds you of all the times you have played Scrabble, which you have done maybe a million times, maybe only half a dozen, but it’s the same you, with the same little squares in your fingers, organising them in a neat little row.

Morning light bouncing off a teacup so that everything seems clean and hopeful.

Stained glass windows.

The word mischief.

Eggs.

Allow the universe to show you the things that don’t matter, because sometimes, when you think about it, they actually do. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

 

This article first appeared in The Big Issue Australia. Buy one when you can.