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.

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.