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.

Pay attention to the quietly splendid

Here is the news: calamity abounds. Also there is footage of the calamity and will be repeated at half hour intervals with lots of urgent text scrolling across it about other things, which are also very urgent and awful and which require your attention immediately. 

This is a Public Service Announcement: there are some other things are pretty excellent. Usually nobody thinks to film them or  tweet them but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular. Maybe it makes them more spectacular. Maybe the act of noticing the small and magnificent things is an act of rebellion in a media saturated world. Be rebellious. Have a look around. Notice the things that aren’t urgent. Pay attention to the quietly splendid. Break away from the dominant narrative and choose your own adventure.

Notice the people in parks on early mornings sailing about on ride-on mowers, cutting the lawns as they motor around in their chunky headphones and high viz jackets. Watch the methodology - are they working in spirals? Two sets of squares? Do they need to lean back and check every now and then - ”did I miss a bit?“ Do they kind of enjoy leaning into the corners? Wouldn’t you? Leaping off at the end like a kid at the end of a fair ground ride looks fun. Not enough leaping in most workplaces.

Parks usually have someone interesting in them. Find the interesting. Elderly people doing martial arts. A young couple having an argument. Last time I was in a park, the interesting people were the people in paramedic uniforms engaged in a fully fledged frisbee session just near their ambulance, which was parked with the back doors open in what was not, technically, a car park. Notice the interesting people. 

Warm jumpers are great. Like a soft cuddle you can carry in your bag.

Stifled giggling. What a gift. What a glorious combination of emotions. What a perfect human response. Google “newsreader loses it” and have a cup of tea.

A well-timed, perfectly cooked toasted cheese sandwich can actually be so good as to make grown adult humans weep. This is a clinical fact based on years of scientific research involving volunteers (or, a volunteer, to be more accurate. Or to be even more accurate: me).

Nude gumtrees that have wrinkles are lovely.

And there’s nothing like the ground beneath a forest of eucalyptus trees - a carpet of curly gum leaves, especially delightful after a bit of light rain. Bit slippery. Blinking. Shiny. Smelling like a bush dance in a thunderstorm.    

Hot drinks are nice. Who thought of that?

How excellent that some people, usually older people, pre-empt gorgeous little proposals with the words “Now then”. For example, “Now then, how about a cup of tea?” or “Now then, your grandfather and I got you a little something”. Now then. A phrase that adds nothing, in terms of meaning, but both lends a formality to the occasion while simultaneously insisting that we don’t make a big fuss and we just get on with things for heaven’s sake.

Hooray for the little things that probably weren’t designed that way for the reason you enjoy them. The accidental design perks. On the driver’s side in my car, the dashboard has a little verandah that almost touches my steering wheel. It juts out over the dials and the petrol tank light and stuff. There is no outwardly obvious reason for the little dashboard verandah and it isn’t on the passenger’s side, which is flat and rounded, possibly for putting your bare feet on during summer road trips. So the question is: was the dashboard verandah designed for the purpose of providing the driver (me) with a little finger-drumming platform? Did they know I would be playing pretend piano on it while waiting at the lights? I doubt they did. But good on them anyway. Good on the people who laid the tiles in the laundry that you like the feel of through your socks. Good on the people who design the little paper sugar tubes that kids like to shake in cafes. Good on the people who put the window in the exact spot in the bathroom that the moon goes right into the centre of it when it’s orange and swollen and you’re brushing your teeth and letting your day drop from your shoulders. Here’s to accidental lovely design.

Here’s to the small things you don’t see on the news. And here’s to you, rebelling against the urgent. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This column originally appeared in The Big Issue Australia, which supports vendors to make their own money. Please buy one when you get a chance.

You Must Remember This

Memories are fickle, sometimes cruel, and often confusing. Even the lovely ones can bite. Sometimes, it can feel like there's a mad projectionist flashing random scenes of humiliation from the past at your startled subconscious when all you're doing is trying to walk down a street in the rain or bite an apple or feed the dog. 

That's why it's nice to give the projectionist some time off every now and then. Sit down in the dark. Pause and reflect. Do a bit of deliberate, conscious remembering. 

Remember the good stuff. This is a Public Service Announcement.

Remember the hush of standing amongst pine trees.

Remember singing.

Remember the best person in your life at folding things. 

Remember the kind of tired you get when you're sitting by an open fire.

Remember the physical expressions of joy that tend to characterise childhood - the feeling of riding a bike down a hill, for instance, or doing a cartwheel, or jumping from a tree or balancing along something you know you shouldn't be balancing along, or listening to your whistle echo in a hallway.

Remember the sound of a bell bird.

Remember that thing where you stay somewhere different for the night and it's super dark and super quiet and the Milky Way looks like someone spilled a bunch of glitter onto a rug made of midnight and all you can hear is the noise of the sea, which sounds like a roar and also like silence. 

Remember how eating an apple while considering something very seriously can kind of make you feel a bit cool.

Remember the last time you got the giggles. 

Remember your first crush.

Remember the smell of a sprinkler on a hot day.

Remember chess and your favourite book and the Great Wall of China and space travel and antibiotics and ice cream.

Remember the smell of geraniums. And the word geraniums.

Remember your favourite childhood dessert. 

Remember that until recently there was a woman nobody knew about who was undergoing experimental cancer treatment. Nobody knew of her, that is, until the period of two years elapsed since her treatment and it was announced to the world that the experimental treatment had worked and that her advanced cancer had been completely eradicated. Remember that, before that two year period elapsed, nobody knew this was happening except the people involved. Nice to be reminded that, right now, there are smart people working very hard on secret projects that will change the world. Go, you good people! Go hard!

Remember your favourite storyteller. Remember the feeling of listening to a great story. As a kid, at a party, in an audience, watching a TED Talk, whatever. Remember what they did with their hands and what they did with their eyebrows and when you felt most surprised.

Remember the feeling of having a really good conversation completely in the dark.

Remember distant thunder as lightening cuts across the sky.

Remember how lovely candles look all lined up in a row. Next time you're sick of somewhere, line up a row of tea candles and turn out the lights. Provided the house doesn't burn down, it will really refresh the aesthetics.

Remember rock pools. 

Remember the feeling of someone about to arrive.

Remember that thing where you go somewhere in nature and you discover a gentle piece of evidence that humans have been there, and you smile to yourself, and you will never meet them, and they will never know. A spiral of gumnuts arranged on a tree stump. A row of shells, descending in height order. A portrait drawn in the sand with a stick.

Remember the good things. Notice them as they pass you by. Sure, they might be little, but they're part of who you are, and they're lovely, and you can conjure them any time you like. Take with you rock pools and the summer sprinkler the sound of your whistle in the hallway. Savour the mystery gum nut spirals and the bell birds and the Milky Way. Remember the good stuff. You deserve it. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This is an edited version of a column that appeared in The Big Issue. Buy the magazine from the vendors when you see them if you can.

 

Studies show...

Chances are you’ve read an article. An article about a study. An article about a study that found that either red wine is good for you or it gives you cancer but you can’t remember which. Either pears bring down your blood pressure or chess players are more likely to get liver disease. Air is great but sometimes it’s deadly. Exercise is fabulous except when it kills you. 

We’ve all read the articles. We all know we’re doing it wrong. If only we got up earlier, had colder showers, lived in the bush/near the sea/up a mountain/with pets or old people or indoor plants, avoided gluten, drank filtered water, played instruments etc… then life would be a breeze. Then, we’d be coasting. 

Truth is though, studies don’t show everything. Here are some things that studies don’t show. This is a Public Service Announcement. Your life is not a science experiment.

Studies don’t show how amazing it is when four butterflies hang out together. Have you witnessed that lately? It’s really quite ridiculous. The way their wings move, the way they dip and rise through the air, it’s the quietest thing in the world but it looks noisy. It looks like laughter and conversation and a game of chasey and music come alive on a page.

Some trees have branches you could easily sleep in. And levels. Some trees have levels, like storeys in a building, hidden under the canopy of the leaves. Like a secret nature house.

Sometimes after a warm day, the temperature drops to just the right temperature and it’s slightly cool on your skin and your body lets you sleep a deep and thorough slumber that refreshes your whole face.

People watching other people sideways with interest or affection is an underrated element of the human condition and in my view there is not enough research work done in this area. 

So cute how humans leave their shoes neatly together in pairs. This seems to be important to us in some way and it’s something that happens across cultures. I have not looked into this but I would be surprised if this has been studied or mentioned in the news nearly as often as it could be.

Paperbark is lovely. Drawing on paperbark with biro has got to be one of the more lovely writing experiences. To my knowledge, nobody has figured out a way of turning this into a capitalist enterprise. This is an excellent result so perhaps it is best there are no studies launched in this area. 

Nobody studies the way water dripping in one context can make a person feel homicidal and water dripping in another context can be the most relaxing sound in the world. One of the great mysteries of the world: unsolved by science.

What are babies thinking? This one will have been studied but nobody actually has any real answer. Look at the little blighters though. Don’t tell me they’re not thinking. Rubbish.

Ever been a pine forest? That smell cannot be replicated and I don’t care how hard people try. The gulf between the smell that enters your soul when you stand deep and cool in a dark, quiet pine forest and the little “pine” smelling tree thing people hang from their rear vision mirror in the car is enormous and eternal.

The feeling of having just been for a swim - even if you didn’t do much, just went from warm to cold and cold to warm again - is a special kind of tired. Why isn’t this type of tired being researched? We should cultivate it. It’s lovely.

Porridge. Entirely excellent. Almost never mentioned in studies.

The patterns made by the tide in the sand. Can’t think of a single article about them.

The surge of goodwill that happens between drivers who give the wave or let each other in or help each other out in traffic: nothing. A lot of studies into road rage but not much work goes into really exploring the mutual affection of the country-road-hello.

Studies don’t tend to show that while life is short it is often lovely. We have to figure that last bit out for ourselves. So go and fondle some paperbark. Stare at a baby. Look at somebody sideways. The world is bursting with small miraculous mysteries nobody will ever solve. Enjoy them. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This article appeared at some point in living memory in The Big Issue. They are excellent and you should buy the magazine from vendors on the street whenever possible the end.

Nothing to do with you but to which you are connected

Hey! Look! Now. Look. Look around you. Are people talking? Is there sky? What else is there? Move outside your own head, outside your own life. Forget the other stuff. The foreground stuff. Breathe it out of the muscles in your body. Let go of it. It’ll keep. Find something diverting. Be diverted. Cherish this luxury afforded by the human imagination: we can shift perspectives, consciously, if we try. So concentrate, now. Find the little things in your life that have nothing to do with you, but to which you are connected.  Find the lovely things, the surprising things, the remarkable things. This is a Public Service Announcement.

Find water. Somewhere in your vicinity there will be water. Through a wall, in a drinking tap over by the park bench. In a puddle. In the sea. We all know how important water is for human survival but also: go and stare at the sea and feel your pulse slow down. Read a book in the bath when you’re stressed. Stand in the shower when you’re sick. Squirt a kid with a hose on a hot day. Water has a transformative effect on humans that science can’t quite explain. If science can’t explain something, it’s either completely crazy or it’s kind of magical. Pour yourself a crazy, magical glass of water and cherish it for a change.  

Find friends. Not your friends. Other people who are friends. Find them on the train or in a cafe. Find them gossiping together at work or laughing together on the phone. Friendships are really just accidents of circumstance. How excellent, then, that they are everywhere, working away all the time, getting stronger or petering out or reminiscing on what they once used to be. 

Friends sliding down each other in fits of giggles are great friendships to witness, although friends absent-mindedly handing each other coffees while they talk about Pete from the Main Office are also excellent. New friendships are lovely to be near - full of questions and the gleeful discovery of mutual enjoyment - but old friendships are a true privilege to witness too. Other people’s friendships are refreshing and rewarding to get a snapshot of, if you know where to stand and how not to look like a total creep while standing there. 

  Find someone to be kind to. Pay for someone’s coffee without them knowing it. A little secret act of generosity with no reward except the feeling of knowing somebody else might be surprised out of themselves, if only for a moment.

Find something hot to pair with something cold. Ice cream and apple pie. A frozen flannelette on a hot summer’s day. A hot shower after a swim. 

Find a David Attenborough documentary. 

Find a stone. Hold it in the palm of your hand. Study it. It’s basically a history lesson. A borrowed piece of the planet. Throw it high in the air and away.

Find fresh air.

Find a path. Walk down it. Paths are nice.

Find an animal. Walk away from people for a bit. A magpie, a dog, a cat with one eye judging you from high up on a corrugated iron fence or something. Animals operate at a difference pace, motivated by different stimuli. They approach the world differently. Hanging out with them can slow you down, make you smile, or freak you out. Either way it’s a circuit breaker. 

Find your favourite crowd. Maybe you stood in it once. Maybe you watched it. Maybe you were a kid and there was a Christmas party, adults laughing while you fell asleep on someone’s lap. Or you were at a gig and the music blew your mind. Were you at the footy? Maybe you stood in a choir, singing, feeling the music blend together and the lights in your eyes. A good crowd is a warm and wonderful thing, in which you can be you, but also part of them.

Find an old person. Find out who they love. What they used to do. What they do now.. What they’re proud of. What they regret. Listen to the words they use, watch their manners. See how the small wrinkles on their face hint at what their smile might look like before it fits together on their face.

So find the details in the background. The things that to do not belong to you, but surround you. Let other people and other things lift you up and away. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This column appeared at some stage in living memory in The Big Issue. Buy the magazine whenever you can. It makes a huge difference to the vendors. 

To Do: some unimportant things, not at all urgently

Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt the inner monologue. Apologies for butting in on the ongoing To Do List. Obviously you have other priorities. There are, of course, ‘better’ ways for you to be spending this time.  

Thing is, though, sometimes it’s good to prioritise the non-urgent. To contemplate the unimportant. To be thankful for the small. This is a Public Service Announcement.

Sometimes it’s good to sharpen all your pencils. Watch the coils curl and drop. Smell the wood. Push the sharpened point into the pad of your finger. Use the new pencil on a new page in a pad. What a lovely invention. Good one, humans. Nice work.

Consider the beautiful invitation to adventure that is the Australian path to the beach. Scrubby bush carved out by bare feet and surfboards. Signs depicting dangerous animals. A kid’s hat perched on the fence post in case someone comes back for it. Best of all maybe, that spot of blue glistening through the tunnel, which, when you enter it, goes instantly dark and silent, like a secret from the rest of the world.

A new haircut. Nothing like it. Feel it lift you into another version of yourself.

Poetry. Stay with me. Song lyrics count. William Butler Yeats reckoned he was going to set himself up in a small cabin with nine rows of beans, where he would “live alone in the bee-loud glade”. Now, next time you’re somewhere thick with undergrowth and you hear the low drone of bees, try and stop yourself thinking the phrase “bee-loud glade”. Pretty hard not to. And not to put too fine a point on it but your old mate James Joyce famously described a wintery coastline as “the snot green sea, the scrotumtightening sea” so there’s not much doubt poetry can paint a mind picture. It’s got attitude too. Don’t mess with Dorothy Porter when she declares she has “no head for heights/ but plenty of stomach for trouble”. Seriously, if you know a line of poetry, or a bar of a song, the words can sit alongside you sometimes, when you thought it was just you sitting alone.

Banksias are so weird. How great is a world where banksias are just a normal thing, exploding like hedgehogs from the branches of trees, turning into different versions of themselves, propagating like gorgeously designed seed pods sent from outer space.

Marmalade is nice. Even if you don’t like marmalade, you like the word marmalade. If you don’t like the word marmalade I can only suggest you have a nice cup of tea and watch a David Attenborough documentary and see if you feel better after a lie down.

Sometimes, the power goes out. No I realise that isn’t always absolutely amazing. But when the power goes out, or there’s a fire drill, or something happens that makes all the humans have to partake in a compulsory group activity, it really is quite an excellent example of humanity at its best and its worst. The nervous giggling, the team bonding, the problem solving, the “hilarious” gags people make at the expense of whoever is to blame. And there’s always something that can’t be done. Computers can’t be used, or the cards won’t work that are supposed to get you into the building, or you have to find a candle in a house you’re staying in that’s owned by someone’s uncle. We live in a world that prioritises convenience so much that, when we are without it, a small part of us feels relieved. It’s out of our control. We are under no obligation to Do All The Things. When the power goes out, or the server’s down at work, or you have to evacuate with everyone on the seventh floor down a stinky stairwell, you aren’t allowed to make the usual choices you make, and so you swim with the tide. You talk to someone called Todd who is a graphic designer from way down the other end of the building, and forevermore, when you see Todd in the lift, you and Todd behave as though you have survived something together. There’s a deep understanding between you that nobody can take away, because of a fire drill. So here’s to the power sometimes going out.

By all means go back to the To Do List. By all means, deal with everything life is throwing at you, but remember the poetry and the marmalade and the banksias, and take every opportunity life offers you to front up to a beach track and feel the rest of the world fall away.

This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This article appeared originally in The Big Issue Australia. Please support Big Issue vendors when you get a chance. 

Winter is coming

We’re leaning now, all of us, collars up, hands deep into our pockets, chins down, bracing against the chill of another winter fast approaching. All that dark and all that cold. Not quite yet, maybe, but so, so close. The daylight stolen, the night thick and silent, the fog crouching low in the hills. There’s nil but grim determination to get us through this now. 

Just kidding, calm down, it’s not that bad. And even if it is there’s always something, somewhere, worth paying attention to.

No seriously, there is.

Look around. As the evenings cool and the mornings snuggle into you past that first alarm, as autumn drifts like a lovely smokey memory from your grasp: harden up. There is beauty here too. This is a Public Service Announcement.

Look around you. Enjoy the fading light of the evening, the sad nostalgia of it.

Enjoy space. Seriously. Actual space. You can go outside at night, wherever you are, and get a glimpse of space. How ludicrous. A huge expanse of gases and luck and time and stars, right up there, just above the Seven Eleven, or the cow shed or the fence, or whatever. And because of what you see up there, because of an incredibly unlikely series of events far too long ago for you to really even know how to understand it, you exist. And so does the last person you spoke to and the next person you speak to and also Marie Curie and Ghandi and Shane Warne and crocodiles and Youtube.

Also cheese is pretty great.

How magical are cities at night and the country in the morning. Not a question. They’re great. Let’s keep them.

Notice the strange people. The person singing loudly on a bike, no hands. The close-talkers. The over-sharers. The ones who annoy and confuse. Notice them in a way that makes you fond. Find the fond. Imagine yourself into their world hard enough that you can find it.

Sand! Sand is really a bunch of shells smashed up against some rocks. Well done, sand.

Arriving somewhere at night where the stars are better: always worth the drive. The most appreciative star-gazers may well be the ones who are doing huge stretches with one hand on a car door.

People who are dressed up to go out: here’s to them. There is something so hopeful and pleasing about the act of taking care to dress up for other people. Shiny shoes that you can hear coming. Pressed collars. Gorgeous necklines. Bold colour choices. Watch a group of people chatting out the front of a theatre, or a party, or even a nightclub. The excitement. The glee. The touching. The noise. Then imagine each of them getting ready at home, alone, before hand. The quiet. The act of getting ready requires anticipation of an unknown: what’s the event going to be like? Will I be cold? Who’s going to be there? Will they like me? Will they like me more in a different shirt? Note the contrast between that and the noisy street-side gaggle and enjoy the human capacity for hope and for trying, always trying.

Musicians practicing somewhere, making music, working on the idea that a finished piece of art can feel both spontaneous and whole. Extra points if the sound is coming from somewhere far enough away that you can’t see them but you listen to their work and hear their progress and feel a solidarity with them regardless.

Gardens exploding out of front yards. Carpets of leaves under shrugging trees. Nature, bursting at the seams all around us, even as we trudge through it as though it isn’t, completely, the point.

Old places, like stables or municipal buildings or ancient rocks, or castles, or even just bricked-over doorways and those weird little hidey-holes low down in the brick fences of terrace houses where the servants used to put the wee so that someone could come along on a horse and take it away in the morning.  The traces of lives gone before us, of people just like us who wandered about the place like we do, and looked at the same moon, and had crushes on people and wished for things and had secrets and watched leaves fall and tried to keep warm in the winter.Look around as the winter approaches. Watch it coming. See the autumn fade away. Go for a walk and find some old things and some dressed up people and look at the stars. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This first appeared in The Big Issue. Please support your local vendor and buy a copy.

Big life?

Big day? Big week? Big year? Big life? 

Is life so big with all of the things you haven’t done and the thoughts you haven’t finished, and the friends you feel bad about not having seen, and the secret hopes, and the still-forming ideas, and the errands, and the bills and the mundanities and the unanswered questions and the loose ends and the climate and the state of the world and the fact that you pronounced a word incorrectly once at a party and you remember it suddenly at midnight when a sound outside wakes you and now you’re worried about the sound and also about the fact that somewhere on earth there is a person who thinks you are not only an idiot but also an overconfident one?   

Life is big. It’s true. And maybe you’ll grow into it. For the meantime though…

Take a seat. Let’s have ourselves some small.

This is a Public Service Announcement. Enjoy the small things. 

Enjoy cool evenings.

Enjoy other people’s laughter. Think of your favourite laugh. Try not to smile.

Enjoy the small moments in people’s lives. Like when strangers interact and find themselves helping each other do things. How to use a parking meter, for instance, or one of those parking apps on the phone. A stranger leaning over another stranger’s shoulder, pointing in a slightly theatrical way so as to avoid surprise. “I think it’s… this button here”. The way people compensate for other people by performing a version of themselves that helps the other person. “Ha! I know! These apps are so confusing!” The mutual thanks and fond farewells. Sometimes, these short, daily, almost-friendships are the most rewarding, because helping someone feel like a functional human in the universe isn’t that hard, and it makes everybody feel better. Especially people who are terrible with things like parking apps. 

Think of the voice of someone you love. Think of the thing they are most likely to say that makes you smile. Feel a bit happy that you’re the person they’d say that to. Maybe, if you can, tell them you’re happy to be that person. If you can’t, just hold it. It’s yours.

Enjoy hot drinks. 

Find a nice leaf.

Hold someone’s hand. 

Enjoy the fact that someone you know has, in all likelihood, come across someone else you know in a completely random circumstance and none of you will ever be made aware of it. Your mate from work walked past your old school teacher and did the nod-and-smile once on an empty train platform. Your two friends who had never meet and who will never meet once got the same bus together for three hours. A close friend you’ve known forever asked your dentist “are you using this chair?” in a cafe when they were one chair short for coffee and cake with the family. Your dentist said “go for it” and smiled those beautiful teeth from over the weekend newspaper. They felt that moment of mutual warmth strangers can feel for each other without it meaning anything much, and then they forgot about each other, and you were at home having a shower at the time and the universe just happens like this always, without you but also with you, which is a great thing because it means you are both insignificant (but a small character in a much larger play) and significant (had they been aware of their connection to you, their interaction would have been instantly more meaningful). Small moments, kind of big.

Try a new thing on a menu.

Be kind to someone you have no reason to be kind to. 

Listen to a piece of music that makes your heart swell like the surf and then remember that humans made that happen. They made it happen over centuries by experimenting and by writing dots on a page and pressing their fingers onto strings and thumping huge drums and blowing into tubes and using their own voices and writing whatever poetry it is that right now, this very moment, sends three to seven minutes of something that moves you right into the very middle of who you are. You, personally, whom nobody involved in the process has ever met. Just a little song. Such a big combination of things. 

Enjoy the small. The tiny looks, the stillness, the thoughts that go nowhere, and the cups of tea while staring into the middle distance.

Life is big but it’s made up of small. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

 

This column appears regularly in The Big Issue, which you should buy whenever you can because it supports people who are working hard to change their lives.

Symbolism and metaphor/sex, death and renewal

If you go to an art gallery or read a book or pop along to the cinema or something, you’ll find that if there’s one thing humans can’t stop doing it’s deploying symbolism and metaphor. Hooboy, we deploy those bad boys all over the place. The egg as a symbol of fertility. The shower as a symbol of renewal - although of course water can also represent death. Or sex. Or freedom. All this can be quite confusing. People have PhDs in this stuff for a reason.

Generally speaking though, things tend to represent death, birth, sex, the downfall of humanity, or freedom from the downfall of humanity. We’re simple folk. 

Now, in every day life, symbolism doesn’t come in handy nearly so much as you think it might when you’re studying cinema at university. We don’t tend to look at a body of water and think “oh goodness, I might die in this next scene. Or maybe something sexy will happen. Or I’ll be reborn. Goodness how confusing”. Symbols and metaphors are there, though, if you look for them, and it can come in handy if you know how it works. Here, then, is a handy guide to embracing the useful symbols and metaphors around you. This is a Public Service Announcement.   

Sunrise. Maybe you never see it. Maybe those dreadful morning people tell you you’re “missing the best part of the day” before they fall asleep, fully-clothed, face-first on their beds at 6pm just as your day is getting started. Maybe you are a dreadful morning person, and you never miss what is, let’s all say it together, the best part of the day. The mist rising off soft orange hills. The silence. The gradual awakening of the birds. As symbolism for a new start it doesn’t get much better than this.

Fire. Sitting in front of a fire, watching the flames curl and flicker, feeling the warmth of it - it’s good for you somehow, on a cellular level that a scientist somewhere might be able to explain. Something happens to your mind when you watch fire. It slows down, becomes able to focus and drift at the same time. Fire is, in art, a symbol of creativity. Sitting in front of a fire, watching it, mind moving with the flames, you can see why. Free your mind. Sit by a fire.

A made bed. Fresh sheets. Usually this is a metaphor for order. Normally it’s at the start of the film before the protagonist’s entire life unravels but don’t let that deter you. If things go awry, just make the bed again. 

Reflections are lovely. Reflections warped and translucent in a glass window. Wobbly reflections in a lake, the colours bleeding into each other, constantly moving, reimagined into a slightly different form. Reflections are a symbol of all kinds of things in art and cinema, but mostly they’re a reminder that things aren’t as permanent or solid as we sometimes think they are. They are, though, when you wobble the focus a bit, pretty gorgeous really.

A blank page. Working on something that feels stuck? Distracted by the Internet? Overwhelmed by life? Find a blank page and a pen. See, now you’re in charge of the narrative.  Metaphorically, you’re basically God. Make yourself God. Clear a space on your desk.

A swim. Dip into some water and re-emerge into the universe. You’ve undergone a rebirth and a cleansing, and (our old favourite) a renewal.  All without needing a midwife.

Birds flying through the air are usually symbolic of freedom. Look up. See if you can spot a bird hurtling through the atmosphere. It’s funny how it can, sometimes, make you feel a bit free.

You know the phrase “walk it off”? That’s a phrase born and bred knee-deep in metaphor and symbolism. If ever you’re feeling that life is too full of problems with not nearly enough solutions, and the problems are so uniquely your problems that you might indeed be the problem, find some comfortable pants, some walking shoes, and ”walk it off”. Sometimes, in cinema, walking for long distances can be seen as a symbol of running from your problems. Sometimes it can be seen as progress or “a journey”. Either way, it’s good exercise and you might see a sunrise or a reflection or someone going for a swim. 

Symbolism and metaphor is all around you. Make the most of it. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

These columns appear first in The Big Issue, which you should buy whenever you see a vendor, because it will change their day.

A moment of your time

You know those people who stand on street corners and say with pointed enthusiasm, “Can I have a few moments of your time?” or “Hello! You look like you love forests!” and then they ask for your ”details” in order to enable a monthly direct debit set up in your name? The fact that this approach still exists as a way of getting revenue in such a cynical world is fascinating. Once, I was in a carpark and one of these people came towards me saying “Oh! Hi! It’s you!” in a way that made me think I had at one point known her intimately but somehow forgotten. By the time my social muscle memory had finished responding to her over-enthusiastically while frantically searching for a flicker of recognition, I was accidentally committed to giving her “a few moments of my time” and the pressure was on from there.

These people are on corners everywhere because social engineering like this works. Probably, they’re raising good money for good causes and all power to them if the gorillas and forests are benefiting from someone tricking me into thinking I’m their friend. Trouble is, when the person who is coming towards you saying “Hello! I see that you are part of the interconnectedness of the universe and that you share with me a concern for all living things” is also asking you to commit on-the-spot to a monthly direct debit of only $39.99, the ”few moments of your time” become a little weighed down in fine print. As a metaphor that can be a little bit depressing. The journey from “Hi! Let’s have a chat!” to “How good a person are you? Please answer in a dollar amount only“ is swift and unforgiving. It’s the same with phone companies doing surveys. “Can I have a few moments of your time to ask you some questions about our customer service?”

 It sounds like such a small thing to give. A few moments of your time. The few moments of your time are being monetised, though, aren’t they. Commodified. Fed back into the machine.

So. Take a few moments of your own time. Obligation free. This is a Public Service Announcement. May we have a moment of your time? You look like you love forests.

Maybe you love the smell of them. Maybe you love standing at the bottom of those huge, ancient gum trees, bark peeled off by the sun, stripped down by the weather. Maybe you like looking up, trying to imagine a building in the city at a similar height. Trying to imagine a city at all, when nature is all around you and the idea of its opposite feels arrogant and fruitless and absurd.

Maybe you love gardening. Digging your hands into the dirt, uprooting weeds or carving out a little corridor of colour in the green. The feeling from squatting down all day in the sun. The smell of damp earth. The cup of tea afterwards, admiring what you’ve done, a bit of leaf in your hair. Maybe you like being able to see the progress you’ve made. A living expression of your creative impulses.

Maybe you love a sky reflected upside down in almost still water. I mean, who doesn’t?

Maybe you love live performances. An electrifying musical performance. A play unfolding before you.

Maybe you love Saturdays. Take a moment of your time and reflect on the excellence of Saturdays.

Possibly you like smart stuff. Stuff that challenges you, or teaches you. Something that changes your mind. A documentary. An insightful article. A great book. A clever friend.  

Rooftop gardens and rooms full of books: spend a few moments of your time in these as often as you can. Use the moments well. Feel your pulse slow down.

 Sometimes the universe provides something right when you need it. A green light when you’re late, or a perfectly carved, translucent cough drop forgotten in a cupboard right when your throat was just scratchy enough to warrant a midnight stumble to the all-day chemist. Maybe you stand in the quiet kitchen and look at the cough drop and think to yourself: what genius thought of this? Spare a few moments of your time for the bounty of the universe when it smiles upon you.

Take a few moments of your time to enjoy a few moments of your time. Nobody will get paid but it will be thoroughly worth it. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

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

The Gouldian Finch

Now we’re getting somewhere. Where, exactly? I dunno. Somewhere. Shoosh. Doesn’t matter. Who cares. Not the point. Point is, we’re rocketing forward into the next bit. We’re well past the lazy drifting summer days of yesteryear now. Barrelling along towards future which is in turn hurtling towards us at increasing velocity. You just have to listen to people in shops. “What happened to January?” “I’m still writing the date wrong” “I swear it was just Christmas”. Well it ain’t Christmas, baby. It’s business time. You’ve got things to do. Worries to be worried about. Concerns that are concerning. Work that needs to be worked.

Come over here though. Look. It’s a Gouldian finch. Teeny tiny little rainbow sparrow that looks like it has been grabbed by a toddler and dunked in a bunch of different tins of paint. Look at the little blighter! Finching away. Being Gouldian. Nature, in a miracle of science and an accident of history, has brought you (yes! You!) into a universe that contains the Gouldian finch - curious, friendly, covered in paint, fond of a peppy little finch dance by way of finding a mate. Go and look it up. The Gouldian finch is a ripper, and you get to share the universe with that. Onya. 

Let us pause for a moment, while I congratulate you for some other things. Don’t worry about the worrying. There’s always time to be worrying. Don’t you worry about that.

Some official congratulations. This is a Public Service Announcement. 

Congratulations on whatever it is you can make. Can you make music by folding one of those shiny leaves in half and stretching it and tooting through it? Can you make a sponge? Paper aeroplanes? A perfect circle? A woollen jumper? A really great cup of tea? Humans are great are making stuff. Once, at a pizza restaurant, I sat next to a group of kids and the pizza chef gave them each a bit of pizza dough to make into something. The kid next to me made the most amazing face out of pizza dough. Everyone gathered around. Pizza chef came over, carried it with great reverence and cooked it in the woodfire oven. Came out even better - dark, important eyebrows, pale face. People took photos. Maybe that kid will grow up and sit in a meeting and be worried about all his worrying worries and he will forget that he is a genius pizza face maker. Point is, humans make stuff. Congrats on making stuff.

Congratulations on those little moments you have where you’re truly by yourself. Out at the washing line or something, hearing the sounds from elsewhere. Nothing but you and the sky and silence descending upon the earth as the evening swallows up the day. Congratulations on those little moments. Those ones are important, somehow.

Congratulations on cicadas. I know you didn’t invent them, but if you grew up in Australia, they’re part of who you are. The flat quiet of a baked summer evening flamboyantly destroyed by a raucous cacophony of military style insects literally screaming tunelessly at full capacity. 

Also congratulations on living in a country that calls an insect like that a cicada, making it clinically impossible for any human from anywhere on earth to say the name of the insect without doing so in an Australian accent. 

Congratulations on the lyrics you know. You know the ones. Maybe they’re a daggy eighties ballad, or the words to your school song. Maybe - quite probably - it’s an ad for Spray n Wipe. You know something well enough to belt it out without any assistance. Good on your brain for never letting go. 

Congrats on getting this far. 

Congrats to you and the incidental people in your life. Being one of someone’s incidental people is super important. If the incidental people in your life - the people serving coffee or driving cabs or stepping out of the way on the train platform - are fun or kind or courteous or helpful, that is most of a day right there. Congratulations on being someone’s incidental assistant. Someone else in the role could have ruined a person’s whole day. 

Congrats on the moments gifted to you by the universe - the green light when you needed it, the train connecting with the bus.

Congrats on sometimes not being able to stop yourself from smiling. 

Well done for all of it. It’s great to have focus and onward momentum but sometimes it’s important to pay a moment’s attention to your proximity to the Gouldian finch. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

 

These posts are originally printed in The Big Issue. Go and buy the Big Issue when you can.

Here's to the gifted

I don’t mean to boast, but I was walking along the other day, sizing things up, when I realised that, despite my personal limitations, I am naturally quite gifted in two key areas. 

I am uncannily gifted in the field of hot drink remembering. I can remember - and I swear this would happen if I were in a hostage situation or splitting the atom or emceeing a royal wedding - almost exactly how much I had left of a hot cup of tea or coffee somewhere in the house. Can NOT for the life of me remember where the cup is, but I guarantee it’s somewhere and it has about two sips left in it. Now, for some people this would not be an achievement at all, but one must work within one’s limits. I am always multitasking and therefore I am forever putting cups of tea and coffee down in the middle of things only to look up like a meerkat about thirty seconds before they’re about to go cold, searching them out across the house. I’m yet to be wrong. I always get to them just in time. People doubt my abilities, of course they do, and question their import, but people will always doubt the work of the truly gifted.

My second gift is the gift of finding, without trying, every time, the exact point in any book I am part of the way through reading. I can pick up a different copy - nay a different edition - of the book in a bookshop, open it, and I am guaranteed to read the very next word that leads on from where I left off. Doesn’t matter if I last read the book two years ago or twenty minutes ago. It happens every time. Even I doubt this gift. Even I scroll back a few pages to see if I really have hit the sweet spot. But I’m gifted. It’s not something I can control. The universe has decided to bestow this upon me, and who am to question it?

I mention these gifts because sometimes things like this don’t get celebrated enough. People are celebrated for being gifted surgeons, or gifted at parenting, or gifted musicians or performers. The small gifts, though, we never hear enough about. 

Let’s celebrate the small, confusing gifts showered on us from the universe. This is a Public Service Announcement.

Celebrate the person in the family who always gets the car park out the front of the venue.

Or like how some people have a built-in sense of direction and can find their way home in a foreign city by just feeling the vibe.

Or the body’s ability to wake up five minutes before the alarm goes off. Moments like that, you feel like the universe has been talking about you behind your back.

People who can tell the ending. “This one is that other dude’s brother and the one from the start with the accent is the secretary who killed the cousin (who is actually the sister)”. “But we’re only three minutes into the movie!” “Yup. See you after. I’ll go and do the dishes”.

People who can pack three cars worth of stuff into one small sedan so that if you packed one extra grain of sand the boot wouldn’t close.

The way you can find someone you know in a crowd without trying too hard, like some executive function in charge of finding loved ones completely takes over.

The earring finders. Someone drop a tiny screw from the arm of their glasses or the back part of an earring in an enormous park at night? Get an earring finder on the case and your problems will melt away.

Maybe you’re a knot detangler. Those people are crazy patient and dextrous as. There is usually only one knot detangler per generation. Treasure them.

And last of all… People who cats like. You know who you are. Many of you? Violently allergic to cats. Can’t stand them. Wish they would leave you alone. Thing is, the rest of us have to win them over for years. You just stand there while the cat’s family watches, incredulous, as their aloof pet throws itself at your feet, puffed up and purring like you’re cat royalty. How do you people do it? Gifted.

You’ve got small gifts. You know you do. So do the people you love. Do a gift stocktake. Enjoy them. You really don’t have a choice. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

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

Find the lovely

Hey! Look! Now. Look. Look around you. Are people talking? Is there sky? What else is there? Move outside your own head, outside your own life. Forget the other stuff. The foreground stuff. Breathe it out of the muscles in your body. Let go of it. It’ll keep. Find something diverting. Be diverted. Cherish this luxury afforded by the human imagination: we can shift perspectives, consciously, if we try. So concentrate, now. Find the little things in your life that have nothing to do with you, but to which you are connected.  Find the lovely things, the surprising things, the remarkable things. This is a Public Service Announcement.

Find water. Somewhere in your vicinity there will be water. Through a wall, in a drinking tap over by the park bench. In a puddle. In the sea. We all know how important water is for human survival but also: go and stare at the sea and feel your pulse slow down. Read a book in the bath when you’re stressed. Stand in the shower when you’re sick. Squirt a kid with a hose on a hot day. Water has a transformative effect on humans that science can’t quite explain. If science can’t explain something, it’s either completely crazy or it’s kind of magical. Pour yourself a crazy, magical glass of water and cherish it for a change.  

Find friends. Not your friends. Other people who are friends. Find them on the train or in a cafe. Find them gossiping together at work or laughing together on the phone. Friendships are really just accidents of circumstance. How excellent, then, that they are everywhere, working away all the time, getting stronger or petering out or reminiscing on what they once used to be. 

Friends sliding down each other in fits of giggles are great friendships to witness, although friends absent-mindedly handing each other coffees while they talk about Pete from the Main Office are also excellent. New friendships are lovely to be near - full of questions and the gleeful discovery of mutual enjoyment - but old friendships are a true privilege to witness too. Other people’s friendships are refreshing and rewarding to get a snapshot of, if you know where to stand and how not to look like a total creep while standing there. 

  Find someone to be kind to. Pay for someone’s coffee without them knowing it. A little secret act of generosity with no reward except the feeling of knowing somebody else might be surprised out of themselves, if only for a moment.

Find something hot to pair with something cold. Ice cream and apple pie. A frozen flannelette on a hot summer’s day. A hot shower after a swim. 

Find a David Attenborough documentary. 

Find a stone. Hold it in the palm of your hand. Study it. It’s basically a history lesson. A borrowed piece of the planet. Throw it high in the air and away.

Find fresh air.

Find a path. Walk down it. Paths are nice.

Find an animal. Walk away from people for a bit. A magpie, a dog, a cat with one eye judging you from high up on a corrugated iron fence or something. Animals operate at a difference pace, motivated by different stimuli. They approach the world differently. Hanging out with them can slow you down, make you smile, or freak you out. Either way it’s a circuit breaker. 

Find your favourite crowd. Maybe you stood in it once. Maybe you watched it. Maybe you were a kid and there was a Christmas party, adults laughing while you fell asleep on someone’s lap. Or you were at a gig and the music blew your mind. Were you at the footy? Maybe you stood in a choir, singing, feeling the music blend together and the lights in your eyes. A good crowd is a warm and wonderful thing, in which you can be you, but also part of them.

Find an old person. Find out who they love. What they used to do. What they do now.. What they’re proud of. What they regret. Listen to the words they use, watch their manners. See how the small wrinkles on their face hint at what their smile might look like before it fits together on their face.

So find the details in the background. The things that to do not belong to you, but surround you. Let other people and other things lift you up and away. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This was originally printed in The Big Issue. Please support your vendors and buy a copy when you see one.

Remember to See

How do they do it? Everybody else. The others. How on earth do they manage it? Do they have more time? More money? Do they get up earlier? Is it because they do squats? It’s because they do squats isn’t it? Squats are the worst.

Here’s a thought. Maybe being other people isn’t as fun as it looks. Have a look at your own life. No not THAT look. Not the look you give it when you’re judging it next to a gleaming instagram picture of the green grass on the other side. 

When you look, remember to see. 

After all, you’re the only one inside your own head. Put something nice into it. Music. Talking. Cake. Take it for a walk through the universe. Sing a bit, maybe. Take a little look around. This is a Public Service Announcement.    

Marvel at the fact that, unlike the unicorn, there really is such a thing as a lady bird - a shell-armoured, tiny-winged, polka-dot-suited half-sphere that flies in a confused flurry and lands like a squadron leader designed by Yayoi Kusama.

 Contemplate the social cohesion required for you to live in a society that has fresh water and free healthcare and choc tops and Netflix.

Look at how fast the clouds move!

Look at how a construction site or even a roadwork site works. The careful, big, clunky synergistic ballet of it all. The “oi!” out a truck window still a vital form of communication. The artistry of concreting and bricklaying. The workers in their blunstones thundering in and out of the tiny caravan thing. The nexus between tension and boredom as everyone watches a huge concrete slab being lifted over some cars. The walkie-talkies. The colour of the earth piled high amidst the human industry.

Look at afternoon shadows, long and languid and lazy, stretching out like a cat by the fire.

Think of your favourite driver. The person whose driving makes you feel safe, or panicked but amused, or loved, or whose commentary on other drivers is worth the trip. There is a pleasure in watching someone be good at something, being in command of something that requires skill and instinct. The arm over the passenger seat, one-move reverse park. The talking while changing lanes. The smooth negotiation of the round-about. The outlandish confidence in finding a parking spot right outside a venue. Nominate your favourite driver and be proud.

Listen. Hear the tide of other people’s conversation drifting in and out. The way people negotiate and renegotiate all sorts of little things by talking to people who are not them. The verbal ways we help each other. The conversational tics. The accents. The performance of it. The pauses.

Notice the difference between close up things and far away things. A lawn from the distance, like a child’s painting, smooth and even like the ocean. Close up? Thin, pointed spears jutting up out of messy brown roots. A football crowd up close: people who could be your uncle eating pies and bellowing at the umpire. From a distance? A hushed roar, united and strong.

Pour tea into a glass and watch the cloud bubble like an atom bomb when you put the milk in.

Clear your calendar for an hour. Google  “soldier returns home to dog”. 

Contemplate the architecture of a spider web.

If you would like to feel 100% yourself, dive into some water. The solitary shock of it unearths the id from somewhere deeper down than the daily grind allows us to access.

Think of the feeling of recovering from a laugh.

Buy a notebook. See what happens.

Try and recall the smell of really posh shops. Lavender mixed with rose mixed with expensive perfume. It’s a smell that tells you to be quiet, but also to smile.

Think of morning mist rising off the earth.

Eat a scone.

Smell some crayons.

Remember that you’re a member of the species that thought of art galleries and theatre and discos and skateboards and wigs and beanbags and those German biscuits that are kind of gingery and covered in icing. And also pies. A house for delicious food that’s made of pastry. I mean well done everybody.

Other people may have great things and do great things and they may be gloriously happy or effortlessly relaxed or both, and that’s lovely, for those people, if it’s true. But your life is yours and it’s full of little things you love. Maybe write them down. In a notebook. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

These articles appear first in The Big Issue. Please support your Big Issue vendors and stop and buy a copy.

Happy New You!

A whole new year! A whole new metaphor! A fresh start! Just like last year!

Time to start being the perfect you. The better you. The you that eats well and works hard and reads more and gets to bed on time and never forgets the name of your local barista. Time to fill your days with the best version of yourself - lithe and wakeful and generous and smart.

On the other hand of course: time is a construct, the calendar was invented thousands of years ago by a nerdy Pope, and the concept of a “new year” is arbitrary semantics designed to make us feel better about the fact that time is rocketing all of us towards the mystery of our own demise. 

Sorry about that. Point is: none of it really matters - and that’s a good thing. The new can be a lovely starting point, the metaphor can be a helpful motivator, but the idea that your messy life is an unsightly humiliation in the place of a version of yourself that you wish you could be is potentially a little bit stressful. Really, none of it matters. Not really. This is a Public Service Announcement.

What matters is someone in a bakery saying “You know what? Have this one too. No charge. Really nice with a raspberry jam, that one.”

What matters is the way fruit looks in a basket.

What matters is how you learn a new word and then suddenly you hear it everywhere.

What matters is when you’re on the phone or you’re in a meeting or you’re listening to someone and you do a really rather brilliant doodle. When everything about the doodle comes together - the way the ink curves, the slightly abstract concept, the fact that you didn’t keep going after you realised it was good and make it terrible again. And now you’ve got a napkin or an envelope or whatever with a rather good doodle on it and it’s not art but it’s not scribble and maybe that makes it art and you don’t want to throw it out so you leave it somewhere in case someone comes along and says it’s a Really Rather Good Doodle. 

Hot pizza.

Hilarious idiot friends who call you by a name that is the same name everyone else calls you but it feels a little bit more correct. A little bit more you. A little bit more like something you came up with together.

There aren’t many things that matter more than watching a gum leaf travel downstream. 

The discovery of posh soap in a café bathroom: gold.

Friends who you only realise when you’re walking away from them did not say a single thing about themselves at all.

People utilising items from elsewhere as outdoor furniture. Turkish rug spread out beneath a tree on the grass, huge comfy couch, little side table, feet in a paddling pool. 

Two people doing sign language to each other from a distance. The universal hand signal for “another drink?” for instance.

Clean hair, fresh pyjamas, shiny faces. Not just on kids. The feeling of having clean hair, fresh pyjamas and a shiny face deserves to always be in the Top 20 feelings of all time. 

Here’s a thing that matters: a long, solitary walk. Scientists are forever studying the benefits of walking and the benefits of solitude. We live in a world conspiring to avoid both these things. Why not combine the two and smash the dominant paradigm by going for a stroll. 

Another thing that matters, especially at this time of year, regardless of the “new year“ metaphor is that great Australian meteorological miracle and conversation starter: the cool change. 

And stone fruit.

And outdoor theatre in the park.

And picnics. 

And places that buy a massive thing of sunscreen and you can just help yourself and it feels like a utopian wonderland because sunscreen is horrifically expensive and this feels like a huge gesture of public goodwill and suddenly anything seems possible.

And maybe your new year will be New and Shiny and Different. Maybe it will be just like other years only with different numbers. Perhaps somewhere in between? Maybe the metaphor of newness will be meaningful and maybe it won’t. It doesn’t really matter. None of it matters. Not really. You know what matters. Take a look around. This has been a Public Service Announcement.