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.

Let us praise

Hey! Don’t worry about it. Seriously. Forget it. Let it go. Take a breath. Take a moment. Take five. Everything is going to be okay. Right? Well, maybe not everything. Some things are a total disaster. Always have, always will be. All the more reason, then, to praise the quietly spectacular. Here we go. Won’t take long. This is a Public Service Announcement. 

Let us praise a cold drink on a hot day.

Let us praise free neighbourhood lemons.

In the era of mobile phones in the car, when almost everybody in the traffic is taking part in an unseen conversation, let us praise the moment you realise that the person in the car next to you is, in fact, singing, alone, all up inside the music, the bass of which is thumping along with the pedestrian light - WIKAwoopwoopwoopwoop - and music is everywhere.

Let us praise casual cyclists, two abreast, backs straight, deep in conversation.  

Let us praise older couples holding hands.

Let us praise the squiggles in driftwood.

And the words “squiggle” and “driftwood”.

Let us praise the subtle art of traveling in a convoy. The hand signals between the driver of the car you’re in, and the driver of the car behind you, whose job it is to make sure nobody overtakes and gets in between you. The shared outrage when someone comes between you - “no! Go away!” - and finding a way to reconnect. The giggly moments when one car does something unexpected or stupid like has to change lanes at the last second and you can sense everybody in the car behind is shouting, “Oh nice one Dave!”

Let us praise the child at the adult party who is reading a book under the table. 

Let us praise the phrase “put the kettle on”, including the perhaps less frequent but still persistent originating expression “put the kettle on will you darl?”

Let us praise the phrase “have you tried ringing it?”

Let us praise the geography of coffee snobbery. The inner-city lowercase coffee menus. The ludicrous paraphernalia, like a drug lab or a sixteenth century perfumery. The country table cloths. The plastic strips showering down the doorframe. The regional binary: “mug or cup?”

Let us praise lovely handwriting. 

Let us praise folded washing and paid bills and chess pieces and music lessons and mangoes.

Let us praise naked children squealing into waves.

Let us praise old wooden row boats and people in suits who aren’t usually in suits and other people’s picnics - their colourful rugs, their frisbees, their cheeses and grapes and laughter, their limbs sprawled across the lawn. 

Let us praise a blank pad of foolscap paper.

Let us praise the word “foolscap”.

Let us praise the sound of distant church bells.

Let us praise Nutella, for it is mostly sugar and is completely terrible for you, but lo it is delicious.

Let us praise cotton dresses and sliced apple and windmills.

Let us praise the shock and delight of gasping onto the surface of the water from your first dive into the sea.

Let us praise the smell of a bakery early in the morning.

Let us praise ancient Egypt. Not so much the slavery and the death, but the maths, the geology, the hieroglyphics.

Let us praise the word “hieroglyphics”.

Let us praise the undeniable poshness of fizzy water. How you can look through it and watch the bubbles blimp up to the surface like they’re letting go of something and sailing upwards into the world.

Let us praise old books of photos. Peeling, faded, stamped with gold lettering: FAMILY PHOTOS. Great-grandparental children peeping in sepia from tiny squares in front of gleaming new Morris Minors. 

Let us praise the noise at the local swimming pool. The public chatter, the squeals, the occasional whistle, the splash from a dive, the low drone of a pool pump working away beneath it all.

Let us praise the sound of cicadas and the smell of someone else’s BBQ.

Let us praise the smell of rain on a hot footpath, and the sound of it on the roof when you just got home.

Let us praise spaghetti and also almonds and the sound of someone mashing potatoes.

Let us praise the human ability to recognise someone not from the sound of their voice or the expression on their face but, from a significant distance away, from their very familiar walk. 

Look around you. The quietly spectacular. Seize it. Absorb it. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

 

This column originally appeared in The Big Issue. Buy the next one and you'll get my next column heaps early!

Look Up Here

This news just in: honestly? Lots of things are terrible. The science isn’t good. The politics is awful. Technology won’t save us. The wrong people are paid too much. Your life isn’t perfect. Nobody’s is. Why do we do it? Why do we hope for the best?

I’ll tell you why. This is a Public Service Announcement.

Because the little moments on the way to the other moments can be delicate and poignant and funny as hell.

Because a shadow on a leaf can blink slightly so as to make you squint and can become, absurdly, a butterfly, folding itself into your ordinary day like being a butterfly isn’t the most bonkers thing in the world.

Because someone wrote “Look Up Here” on a bridge over the freeway.

Because when people who stutter are taught to sing, they don’t stutter so much.

Because old people, when holding babies, have firm and gentle hands.

Because endorphins exist.

Because sometimes, in the middle of someone you love saying or doing something banal like selecting cereal from a supermarket shelf while discussing the pros and cons of particular electricity providers, a wave of affection can rise up in you like the tide and resettle by the end of their sentence as an amused smile prompting them to stop what they’re doing and ask “what?” 

Because the other day I walked past a brick wall and high up on the top of it - way higher than any human could reach without a ladder - was a pear with a face carved into it wearing a jaunty piece-of-string hat from its stem, smiling down at me, congratulating me on having looked up.

Because someone invented the grand piano.

Because the world over, regardless of the languages we speak or the currency in which we trade or the wars we fight, there is a universal way to write and read music.

Because the person we are meeting right now, shaking their hand and wondering if we can remember their name, could be the friend in the photograph with us, a year from now, two years, ten years, smiling into each other’s faces while someone else (a waiter? A relative? Someone else we don’t yet know?) takes a photograph of two people who have taken the time to know each other well.

Because orange light in a distant house will always seem friendly.

Because sometimes, when someone says something you have thought but never quite uttered, you can be surprised by the delight of recognition - a shock and a relief - and there is something about that which makes a moment intimate and generous at the same time. 

Because I live near a high school and the other day I watched as a boy with a camera trotted ahead of his friends, who were walking, steering their pushbikes by their seats, their jumpers slung over the handlebars, and he loped backwards, snapping shots of them, a half smile on his face. If they noticed, they didn’t break their stride, didn’t stop the conversation, which was animated but relaxed, tired and friendly. When they stopped at the lights, the photographer leaned on the pedestrian button with his hip and flicked through the shots with his thumb. A tall shambles of a boy slipped out of the friend gang and put his chin on the photographer’s shoulder. They smiled together at the photos, wordlessly, then looked up at their friends, then looked at each other, and grinned, like they’d had a whole conversation. Didn’t say a word. When the pedestrian light went green, the whole gang flung themselves across the road in a little cluster and reorganised into different pairs as they headed away down the street. The photographer put his lens cap on and listened while a girl with a messy ponytail told him something using her hands that made him laugh with his whole body. The shambles was off up the front. Off they went, one of them carrying a collection of recorded images of his friends, preserved forever. How lovely. My favourite moment, though, remained, at least photographically, unrecorded. 

Because parrots are ridiculous and amazing.

Because whatever else is going on, sitting by a fire with your socks on is good for you in some deep rooted way that science will probably never understand.

Because a home-made cake with icing on it just looks superb.

Because of all those things and because of other things too. Enjoy them. They’re everywhere. This has been a Public Service Announcement. 

An edited version of this column appears once a fortnight in The Big Issue. Support The Big Issue. They really are tops. 

 

People are Weird

Now we’re really getting somewhere. Where? Doesn’t matter. Head down, wings pinned back, soaring, spiralling, rocketing to the end of the year with a momentum that won’t stop for anybody. Don’t look sideways. Don’t stop. Don’t pause to notice the weeks tearing past you like scenery out the window of a fast-moving train. Huge backdrops whirring past. Other people, tiny like children’s toys, going about their business, soundlessly, through glass, and time. 

Or… despite the momentum, do exactly that. Ever so briefly, stop, shift focus, notice things that are not yourself.

Have a look. This is a Public Service Announcement.

Look at people’s hands. Smooth, worn, maps of pigment and texture, dextrous agents of the mind. See if you can spot someone with biro scrawl in their own handwriting - “Michael”, or “shirt” or “Monica by Friday”. These are hints. Character notes. Often, when you love someone, its their hands that come to you easily and which you love with a poignant pang, symbolising the them-ness of them. So look at people’s hands.

Look at the sky.

Look in a library. Look at the books on that little dinner-cart-looking-thing that gets tugged around and is full of books that have just been returned. Look at all the things people have just learned. Who are these people? Who was it who just read “Chess for Beginners”? Who borrowed “Instant Mom” or “Life and Death in the Third Reich”? Imagine the things they know that they didn’t know before. Imagine the things you don’t know. And know this: the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. This is why academics are always say things on radio like “I couldn’t possibly comment on the yellow-bellied sea snake because my area of expertise is the red-bellied black snake” even though we all know that this person probably knows more about yellow-bellied sea snakes than every other human on earth apart from the expert in yellow-bellied sea snakes. Anyway the point is by all means pick up a book.

Look at the stunning symmetry of a leaf.

Look at eggs. I mean really. How completely ridiculous and amazing are eggs. 

Look at how unselfconsciously children move through the world. The sprawl of them across a parent in a restaurant reading a menu. The constant restless motion - a sudden flip upside-down to meet some innate gravitational curiosity. The way they stand to watch a busker. 

Look at people dancing in sync. Google it. Group dancing, Fred and Ginger, whatever. There’s something metronomic about watching it. Something soothing. Something that appeals to the same thing in humans that makes us tidy our houses and buy Home magazine and watch sports and like it when armies march in straight lines. It feels like order and exuberant creativity are happening at the same time. By the way I did just search “dancing in sync” and found several articles reporting that dancing in sync helps you connect to others and gives you a higher pain threshold. People are weird. 

Look at a park. Parks are great. Extra points if you take your shoes off.

Look at a frisbee while you’re there. Or a ball. The science and poetry of it. The way an object behaves in the atmosphere when propelled by the force of a lazy picnicker holding a beer in the other hand. The way it sits on the breeze, or cuts through it. When you watch it, notice whether your mind gives it a sound to match the motion.

Look at the well worn bits of space. Look how people flock. People are weird.

Look at the signs. We make signs for each other! How adorable! Keep left. Deliveries after noon. Parking meter broken. Dave if you get this I have your phone.

Look at how strangers talk to each other. 

Look at how many buttons you can see right now. Chances are more than one. Buttons are everywhere. Nobody talks about how many buttons there are in the world. The world is positively groaning with them. Why do we not give thanks more often to buttons?

Look at someone leaving a hairdresser. A strut? A glance in a reflection? A studied nonchalance? People are weird.

Look at the people helping the other people. There will be one, somewhere, if you look hard enough. 

Look at the way holding a mug of tea or coffee makes a person seem more relaxed, like carrying a mug brings you closer to the dressing-gown-wearing version of you. 

Look around. Just for a moment or two. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

An edited version of this column first appeared in The Big Issue. You should buy The Big Issue because it is one of the Good Things in life and it will make a big difference to another human.

You're an adult

Remember how when you were a kid you really wanted to be an adult? Even if it was just to get revenge on your parents for Brussels sprouts and not being able to go to parties, we’ve all had at least one moment of thinking “When I’m grown up, I’m not going to do that”. Eat vegetables, pay bills, groan about the younger generation being The Absolute Worst.

Then, of course, as an adult, you don’t do all the things you swore you’d do, like eat only chocolate or never shower or just watch your favourite shows all day. You save those things for weekends. Point is, it’s a cliche, but youth is wasted on the young. You wanted to be all grown up and now that you are, you realise that being grown up isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. 

Except it is. Sure, there are bills and the world isn’t so simple anymore and there are, well, other idiot adults to deal with, but perhaps it is time to remember, and to celebrate, the significant privileges of being an adult human.

You’re an adult. Congratulations. This is a Public Service Announcement.

You can put your hand out the window of a moving car, do those little waves up and over the wind, swerving from side to side so the wind billows up your sleeve. You can park your elbow out the window at the lights like a handsome cowboy slash cowgirl rolling into town with a mysterious way about you and nothing to lose.

You can take a drink outside and look at the stars. You can. Any time you like. Cup of tea. Something with ice in it. Just you and the drink and your own breathing, surrounded by night time.

You get to experience the lows, sure, but also the highs of adult connection. The gut-punch of sudden affection when you unexpectedly see someone you love. A hand slipping into yours when you weren’t paying attention. A night time kiss. Laughter that might never stop. Creative collaborations. Work friends. It’s kind of a miracle anybody gets along at all and yet, even as adults, complex and misshapen by our previous adventures, we manage to fit together, sometimes, in small ways, and that’s lovely. 

Doesn’t matter how old you are, if you see an owl in the wild you will gasp. Some of you will gasp quietly, some of you will just stop still and grab the forearm of the person next to you with a certain degree of urgency, but technically all these responses are part of the same emotional genre as a gasp. It’s a fact. If you don’t believe me, ask an owl. They’ve seen us all do it.

You can change another person’s day. Deliberately. With kindness. You can make someone laugh or fix someone’s problem or let someone in front of you in the queue. Apparently, scientists have studied this and one of the key ways to make someone like you is by letting them do you a favour. Being altruistic is empowering and loving and kind and really quite good for your ego. Give it a go.

You can jump in a car or a train and put a day’s worth of travel between you and whatever you’re doing right now and you don’t even need a note from a parent or guardian. Think about it. You could go anywhere. Even an hour’s travel will take you somewhere unfamiliar.

Ice cream. Whenever you want it. Shut up, it’s worth it.  

You can literally go to a machine and type in whatever thing it is in the world that you want and someone somewhere on earth will post it to your house in a parcel from yourself in the past to yourself in the future.

You can be entirely solitary. You can walk through the forest and feel your voice mute in your throat. You can float on the sea with your ears clogged and your lips salty, looking at the sky. You can sing to yourself in the shower.

You can change an animal’s whole life. Enjoy the leaping glee of a dog every day, or the late night purr of a cat, usually somewhere a bit annoying like draped across your neck and breathing into your face. They bring your blood pressure down, animals, when they’re not destroying things. 

Being an adult isn’t terrible at all. Some of it might be, but a lot of it is absolutely sublime. It’s what you make it. Go and gasp at an owl. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

This column originally appeared in The Big Issue. Go and buy one why don't you. 

You vs The Fat Cats

Having one of those days? Is every day one of those days? Do you sometimes wonder what happened to the days that aren’t one of those ones? Did you use up the other kind when you were a kid, maybe? Or was someone else accidentally allocated yours? Some rich fat cat in a private jet cashing in easy day after easy day while you stumble to the finish line at midnight at the end of “one of those days”, passing out face-first on a pile of washing you haven’t managed to fold yet, some of which presses into your face in such a way that when you startle awake again you have a plaid cheek. The rich fat cat does not have a plaid cheek. The rich fat cat owes you.

There are, however, some things that exist, even on those days, that nobody - not the rich fat cats, not anybody - can take away from you. Here is a list of some of those things. This is a Public Service Announcement.

There have been moments in your life when you have been sitting on the beach and you have maybe had your knees up and you’ve been looking down at the sand because you have been listening to somebody else speak and also it’s super sunny so looking down is easier and you have been playing in the sand with your hands. Swishing it around into little patterns, maybe digging a bit and then smoothing it out. People’s voices sound somehow louder and also further away. There are waves in the distance and someone is yelling something about a ball, and everything you’re thinking and doing is slow and you don’t have to be anywhere. The chances of a human being born at all are tiny. The chance of you being the combination of cells you are is preposterously unlikely. How lucky are you to have had even one of those moments in your life? Ludicrously lucky. And it’s just sitting there, on your hard drive, helping to make you who you are.

If you have never done any of these things: great. A new experience awaits. Try it this summer. Preferably often.  

Waterfalls exist. So do pineapples.

That thing where you see a new side of someone you love, like your work friend singing in the local production of Little Shop of Horrors, or your brother being looked up to by the people he works with as though he isn’t just a kid in anchor pyjamas watching Disney on the couch. That feeling is strangely dislocating in that you feel slightly left out but also burn with pride. 

Sitting somewhere where your legs dangle. Preferably while eating an ice cream.

Big tough blokes quietly being nice to cats.  Will also take small dogs. Extra points for quiet talking.

People reading the same books as you on public transport are literally thinking the exact same things in the exact same order. People are kind of amazing.

There a misconception that small talk is without value because it is shallow and insincere. I nevertheless put it to you that small talk is instinctual, positive, hopeful, and based on a firm belief in the ability of people to cooperate. It’s one of those rare genres of human behaviour where, barring occasional awkwardness or cruelty, it’s difficult not to think we’re kind of cute how we can’t help talking to each other. If you’re feeling stuck: go to the shops. Don’t buy anything, just bump into people. You’ll be part of something, in a small, quite dorky way, before you know it.

The calming down of the water in downpipes after a big rainstorm is such a lovely sound. Nature, cleaning up after itself.

The lovely moments of human intimacy that are not romantic but are nevertheless small declarations of love. I remember realising somebody was a friend when she reached forward mid-sentence, pinched my arm ever so slightly, and said “ant”, flicking her hand over her shoulder. You can’t help smiling when those ones happen.

Life is full of little things that no rich fat cats can take away from you. Find yours. They’re worth holding onto. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

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

Kind of lovely

Some things are lovely. No, shoosh, they are. Despite everything. Despite what Twitter says. Despite what “studies show”. Despite “news” and the inevitable crushing disappointment brought about by people who are in what is perhaps mistakenly (a printing error?) described in the handbook as positions of “leadership”. Despite whatever sits heavily within you. Some things are kind of lovely.

Here are some of those things. This is a public service announcement. 

A packet of untouched Derwent pencils.

The moon cut clean in half.

Owls: superb. Terrifying eyes, amusing head swivelling business, some of them bark like a dog. What more could anybody ask.

Watching someone make dumplings. It’s like brain yoga.

Sliding on your socks to cut down on travel time across a room.

A well-made bed.

Blossom. For real! Blossom!

The electrifying, childish, intensely charged feeling of lying in bed and blatantly ignoring the sensible voice in your head by turning the page to the next chapter despite the time.

The smell of crayons.

Other people’s houses. Other people’s bookshelves. The things they have on their fridge.

Those nude eucalyptus trees with the bark hanging off them in big brown skirts down the bottom.

The handwriting of people you have loved.

Banksias.

Sun on your back on a cool day.

The fact that everyone in the whole world, no matter who they are, does that thing where they have to open their mouth when they absent-mindedly touch their eyelid.

Fires. Especially those ones in big tin buckets outside at parties.

The older woman in the post office the other day getting help with her phone from a teenager. He felt useful, she felt that a genius had uncovered a secret to the universe. 

The expression “sleepy head”.

Community markets. There is something so openly hopeful about people sitting behind stalls at a community market. Whether it’s a farmer’s market, a church market, or a local swap meet, it’s kind of the best of society. Walk around, you’ll see keen morning faces behind tables of things people have chosen to present to the world, smiling shyly, or knitting furiously, chatting to the person in the next stall selling honey candles, or pretending not to care as you pass them by. I have a friend who can’t go to marketsbecause she’s too empathetic and she buys all the things from the people who don’t have people buying from them. Comes home from the market with a plastic doll with no pants on, a weird new type of vegetable peeler, and a painting by an old man who runs an almond farm. Point is, markets are lovely. Go to a market. Real communities live there.

Home made cubbies.

Shoes lined up in a row.

Spices cooking.

Weaving your hand through the air out the car door on a hot day.

Amusing text message exchanges. Sometimes the best work you do all week can be some really excellent texting. 

The smell inside an Italian restaurant. 

New pyjamas.

Old-fashioned names in inked cursive in the front of old books.

The rickety-yikes of walking across a suspension bridge and having to trust that other humans have done this right. They’ve never met you, but they’ve got your life in their hands.

Fruit design. Almost all of them are brilliant, with the exception of a couple of the melons and, arguably, the slightly risky avant-garde design of the passionfruit. Imagine you’re a designer and you’re told to come up with a new fruit and you come up with the kiwifruit or the watermelon, though. Imagine how pleased you’d be with yourself. One is a furry brown thing with a symmetrically perfect exploding green sunshine of taste inside it and the other is a big tough ball of turtle-skin green full of mouth-melting pink fuzz that you can cut into pieces so that you hold the skin and don’t get it everywhere. Hopefully they were designed in different years so that they didn’t both have to be up for Fruit Design of the Year in the same year, or it just doesn’t bear thinking about.

Also you know what? The word marmalade is a lovely word and also it means marmalade. Sometimes life is cruel and unfair but then, just when you’d almost forgotten about it, there’s marmalade.

You can do it. Sniff some crayons. Admire your fruit. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

An edited version of this column appears in The Big Issue. Buy The Big Issue next time you see someone selling it. It makes a difference in a real actual human way.

Be Prepared

Did you know that organised people have first aid kits in their glove boxes just in case? Smart, hey? You never know when someone might need CPR or a bandaid or one of those little vials of saline solution. It’s always good to be prepared.

Sometimes though, if you’re feeling below par, it’s not because you need a bandaid.

Here, then, is a first aid kit for non-medical misadventure and malady. Like most first aid kits it will probably stay in your boot and save nobody, but it’s important to have it there just so you know. 

If you ever do have to pull over in an emergency, the fact that you have carried these small antidotes around with you may help provide you with some degree of emotional immunity. It may not. You may need to crack open a chocolate bar or something instead. Still, it can’t hurt. You never know when you might need small, helpful facts about the universe to put things in perspective. This is a Public Service Announcement.

The untouched top of a new jar of peanut butter or vegemite - smooth and evenly poured, sometimes with a little dollop on the top - is a thing of beauty and a joy to behold and I don’t care what anybody thinks. 

Writing on a napkin with a biro is lovely. The letters carve a soft engraving and if the napkin is good enough quality, something about it makes your handwriting better.

Sometimes you’re amazing at really small things and it feels like you should get a round of applause or have someone from a professional organisation give you some kind of official credit for it. We have a really tricky gate at our house that has to be closed in a particular way. I don’t like to boast, but sometimes I can do it first time. It involves getting a good run up, perfect aim, and a flourish on the follow-through. Several times, on a perfect close, I have looked around to see if anybody noticed, resisting the urge to raise my arms in victory. If there were a spotter from the Difficult Gate Shutting League in my neighbourhood on those occasions, I just know I would get accreditation for sure. Lifetime membership of the DGSL, no doubt. You’re amazing at a small thing. Give yourself a round of applause next time.

Tree roots are excellent. They do not care for our shenanigans. Up through the earth, splitting our best-laid concrete and asphalt, like slow motion earth quakes, a metaphor for the quiet strength of nature. Plus they hold up trees! Plus have you ever stood on one in bare feet? Watch a child standing on a tree root and see if they can stop from standing on top and then slipping the arches of their feet down over the root repeatedly, their concave slipping over the convex like a jigsaw. An instinct of rhythm and touch. A theatrical stage and a foot massage at the same time.

Listening sharpens the mind. Listening to nature, to conversation, to spoken word performance, to music. Amazing that you can get your information through sounds that your brain decodes for your imagination. No wonder you sometimes feel tired.  

How good is it when the moon is amazing and you can’t even photograph it because when you try with your phone camera the glorious miracle that is the moon looks like it could be a dirty street light or something and there’s nobody you can tell and you just have to look at the moon and think “it’s just me and you, kid, and you’re blowing my mind” and you know that lots of people, all around the world, are looking at the same moon and you know their lives are full of different things and some of them are sad things and some of them are happy things and some of them are old faces peering up and some of them are young faces peering up and you might one day meet some of those faces, in fact they might even change your life forever, but it’s statistically unlikely that you will ever know even the smallest percentage of them, and if you ever do, you’ll never know. But maybe your phone camera is better than mine.

Always remember to replenish your emotional first aid kit when you can. Look at the moon. Shut the gate like a legend. Stand on a tree root with your shoes off. This has been a Public Service Announcement.  

This is an edited version of a regular column for the heroic magazine and social enterprise The Big Issue. Buy a copy next time you see one.  Maybe buy two.

Neatly folded knitwear

This is a public service announcement. The following useful reminders are to be deployed liberally and, where necessary, repeatedly. Best enjoyed with food, or without. Standing, sitting, lying, or doing that weird thing that happens in a beanbag. A cup of tea is, as is the case in life generally, recommended but by no means compulsory. Cake optional.

Let us begin. Here are some things to remember at all times. Pay close attention.

There is a certain type of turtle, already an excellent animal by any measure, that is able, when required, to breathe through its bottom.

There is nothing bad about bare footprints in the sand. They feel good. They look good. They get washed away by a body of water that is powered by the moon.

The average age of a first time novelist is just under forty years old. Just because you might feel a hundred and ten sometimes doesn’t mean you can’t try something for the first time.

Sunsets exist. Everywhere.

Not only that, but due to the way the earth curves and light travels, when you’re looking at the sun sinking into the horizon, it’s actually already gone. It’s a fact and a pretty picture and a trick all at the same time.

Sometimes, someone might leave the house, and you’re alone, and you’re pottering about, and you go and touch the kettle and it’s warm and something about that makes the silence feel less silent because it feels like the now absent person saying a quiet hello from the half-an-hour-ago past. Or something. Or maybe it doesn’t and that’s just me but either way you’re probably about to make a cup of tea, so that’t an excellent development.

Babies laugh in their sleep. With virtually no life experience, some deep human instinct finds delight and bursts with it through the thick sleep of unconsciousness.

Somebody thought of the name for cinnamon. Who was that? Did it sound right immediately? Or is it just that after a lifetime of associating the word ‘cinnamon’ with the taste and smell of cinnamon, it feels dusty and sweet and subtle and comforting? Would it work if it were called ‘yarp’?

You know what’s an amazing feat of engineering? The human ear. No kidding. Have a look at a diagram of the human ear. It has a little bouncy garage door type thing and a drum and a filter and a drainage system. Superb work in the planning and development stages on that particular project.

There are some species of bird that travel across the globe at the same time each year, as a group, beaten to a pulp by the elements, risking their lives, and the main thing that enables them to do this is that they can sleep with one eye open and only use half their brain at a time. It is arguable that humans deploy similar skills when watching reality television or secretly live tweeting a staff meeting but these birds shut down parts of their brains quite purposefully in order to cross the earth while half asleep. What a bunch of legends.

Neatly folded knitwear in colour-sorted rows: retail perfection. 

While we’re at it: seeing someone you are getting to know but don’t yet know terribly well deploying their organisational and creative capacity to deal with a new season is incredibly revealing of a person’s character. Are you, for instance, a one-umbrella type of person? Was it expensive? Do you keep the umbrella sleeve in a special compartment in your bag or is it too big for a sleeve? Do you carry a cloth for wiping it down? Or… does your umbrella policy involve attempting to remember whether you own an umbrella, finding one you don’t remember buying (misshapen and unbound) and swearing at the broken little wire skeleton bits that fling out like drunk mosquitos and slap you until you find another one in a bar and walk it home at four in the morning? Do you scarf or do you never scarf? When it’s raining and there is no cover, do you do the flattened rain run or are you too good for that? A new season reveals a lot. Pay close attention.

These are important considerations. Hold them close. This has been a public service announcement.

An edited version of this column appears regularly in The Big Issue, which is excellent and which you should all buy immediately.

Desire Lines

Is everything totally working out for you? Do you fist pump the sky like a one-gloved aerobics instructor in an 80s fitness video when you rise to greet the day each morning?

No? Oh.

Huh. Seems unusual. Unless… Maybe, instead of life being like the cheesy, slightly stressful smiley opening number of a musical, life is sometimes the lame moment-of-crisis solo that the most boring character has to do near a stairwell in Act Two while the sets are being rotated. Nobody likes that solo. Everybody wants the comic relief to come on and do a duet, right?

Not as into musicals or 80s music videos as I am? Fair enough.

Point is: things are probably going to be okay. Or mostly okay. Most of the time. Here is a list of things are mostly okay. This is a public service announcement.

Frost on the grass in the morning is pretty good. Somehow, it makes the grass look sharper.

Watching a kid unwrap a present is pretty hilair.

Talking to someone while you both unpack a dishwasher is one of those things that can happen between complete strangers or intimate partners and the shared industry of it feels, subliminally, so productive, so mutually generous, that sometimes you feel a bit sorry when you have to go back to talking without it.

Sometimes the little moments of seeing someone in another car and sharing a slight smile, or an eyeroll in sympathy on public transport, or even a knowing nod over a child’s head to its besieged parents is a significant enough glimpse into the possibility of human social cohesion that it lifts you for a moment and takes you outside of yourself.

Performing little acts of tiny kindness is a rewarding thing to do. Like being the person in the shop who says “I think this person was next” while gesturing at a customer so white hot with rage at having been overlooked as to be almost exploding. Tiny act. Really changed that person’s morning.

Dragon breath on a cold morning. One of nature’s best special effects.

The thing where you know someone well enough to be able to taste whatever they’re having in a restaurant? Should not be taken for granted.

Looking at something for the first time - maybe when you’re travelling, maybe on a bush walk, maybe approaching the crest of the dunes on the beach and taking in the sunset over the sea - and feeling compelled, even though you are alone, to say some version of “wow” under your breath - that’s a lovely, private, human instinct.

Sometimes, things have real names but you don’t know what the real names are because people came up with better ones. For instance, the proper name for a person who helps children cross the road at school is probably something like “traffic safety officer” but we all know they’re called “lollypop ladies” or “lollypop men” and we like them more, don’t we, because of their names? Also, those luminous cones they put on the ground to warn people about roadworks are called “safety cones” but they’re really witches’ hats. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that. We named them after a fake thing from a fairytale because we are all twelve, deep down.

Sometimes you walk somewhere and there are paths - paved ones - but, despite that, people have decided there’s a quicker way and so there’s a narrow little footpath carving a wiggly shortcut across the grass from one spot to another. A lot of people had to decide to go the exact same way for that happen. Apparently they’re called desire lines. How lovely is that?

There’s something lovely about nostalgia. Looking at the last of the autumn leaves. Remembering how you felt when you were ten years younger. Hearing the jingle from an ad when you were a kid. That affectionate, gentle, almost-sadness about the things that made you who you are.

Ever seen a dog on the beach? Enthusiasm, unbridled.

For some reason, pictures of bicycles are comforting. Not actual bicycles, but look at signs with pictures of bicycles on them. They’re so inviting and lovely and wholesome and they make you think things are maybe not as bad as they seem. But maybe this last one is just me.

Whatever. All of these things are quite okay. A life with even just a few of these things in it contains some degree of excellence. Well done. This has been a public service announcement.

An edited version of this column appeared in The Big Issue. Please support The Big Issue and their vendors. They're an excellent collection of humans.

Dream slowly

Here’s a question that isn’t as important as the Internet seems to think it is: have you “leveraged” your “personal brand” using “key words” to “optimise” your CV and “fast track” your “dream career”? 

No? 

Neiths. 

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of ambition, of course. Nothing wrong with achieving things and being proud of them. Nothing wrong with a CV. Or words. All words, though, it could be argued, are key words. Except, I put it to you, the word “optimise”. 

Also, dreaming is lovely. Fantasising about, say, playing the oboe in the Royal Philharmonic - picturing yourself up there, lips pursed, back straight, mastering a difficult section of something composed by Handel centuries ago, as the concert hall lights reflect off the spectacles and bald heads of your rapt audience and you feel the music surge through you - is not a sensation that should be “fast tracked”. What gets you there is practice. And dreaming. Slowly.

So, then, this is a public service announcement. Dream slowly. Get some stuff wrong. Have a crack. Here’s a skill for your CV: time taker. Take your time.

Take your time to remember. Imagine a memory thief is coming to steal all your memories. Pick three to keep. Go! Now!

Take your time to do nothing. Ten minutes. Five, if you must. Lie down. No headphones. No trying desperately to be zen. No “clearing your mind and thinking of yourself in a forest telling yourself you’re at peace”. Just like there, breathing, mind doing whatever it likes. Marooned on a couch or a bed with nowhere to look but up.  

Take your time to notice the way you read signs inside your head. Like how “keep clear” when written on a road is always “CLEAR KEEP”. Or how the “if you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you” on the back of a large truck always reads itself in an arms-crossed, school teacher voice similar to “if you don’t want to listen, we can stay right through recess”. Or how the bus you’re driving behind says “Warning: bus stopping constantly” and you can’t help but think it’s a judgement. “Ugh. This bus is stopping constantly”. Signs: your brain makes them more than just words.

Take your time to wonder about the really important stuff. Like what emotions do animals feel? I have a friend who thinks sheep sometimes get embarrassed. Once you’ve thought that about sheep, it’s hard not to feel a genuine empathy for them.

Also, isn’t it interesting how when humans achieve something, it makes us seem both bold and humble? Like when you see marathon runners in the Olympics and you realise they’re pushing the bounds of human physical limitation and it’s incredible that someone can run that far and that fast, but also: woah, these people are vomiting and wobbling and excreting and look like they haven’t eaten since 1974. They’re both awe-inspiring and pitiful at the same time. And sometimes you walk past a building site and see the machinery digging holes and the workers squinting up at the crane thing lowering cement panels onto each other like oversized jigsaw pieces and you think “wow, how clever, humans used to have to do that with shovels” but also “Really? This is still all we’ve got? It’s clumsy and inexact and takes forever and it seems like aliens might laugh at us for it”. 

There is a strong chance, though, that aliens haven’t thought of tea bags or egg whisks or rollercoasters or how to sing in a round. 

Take your time to notice how animals and children often bring out the best in people in public. Getting down on one’s knees in front of a dog tied up outside a supermarket is in some people’s DNA. “Are you a good boy? Oh yes you are!” is a phrase that, when you say it with conviction, brings your own blood pressure down. Similarly, if you carry a toddler over your shoulder in the queue at the post office and then turn around quickly, chances are you will catch at least one grown adult bent double, silently mouthing “There you are!” behind peekaboo saloon door hands. The stereotype that it is always women doing this is incorrect, by the way. In my experience, queue-peekabooers hail from a range of backgrounds and are united in one thing only: deploying coming timing and, often, a range of amusing props, to entertain a person whose main facial expression is the bemused stare. 

Don’t fast track your dreams. Don’t optimise anything. Take your time. Marvel at an egg whisk. Console a sheep. This has been a public service announcement. 

An edited version of this column appeared in The Big Issue. Please support Big Issue vendors and the work of this excellent institution. 

Triumph and Disaster

It was Rudyard Kipling who suggested in his poem “If” that we should treat triumph and disaster “just the same”. Treat them, he said, as though they’re both imposters. Rudyard was a racist old coot but his old-fashioned poem makes a few solid points. On one reading of this bit, for example, he’s urging you to deny yourself the emotional rewards of success and bottle up the depths of your despair in the face of disaster. Well, we’ve all watched enough Hollywood movies to know that’s a terrible idea. But there is another way to interpret what Kipling is saying. Maybe the point is that you should enjoy your success without allowing it to define you, to shake you out of yourself and become such a crucial part of your identity that when it fades you feel a little of yourself fade. That you should not let the experience of disaster shift you too far from who you are in yourself. The flip side of this is that while success and failure are extremes, the matter in between triumph and disaster is small. So if we absorb the small, normal, everyday stuff into who we are; when triumph and disaster come along, we’ll have a map reference that says YOU ARE HERE like on those signs at the zoo. Do you think? Does anybody understand what I just said? Look, this might make sense later. This is what studying poetry is like. Just go with it. Absorb the small things. The blissfully normal. Remark upon the unremarkable. This is a public service announcement. 

Did you know that the two simple, perfect acts of elevating your feet and walking on grass in bare feet both create actual physiological reactions in your body that make you feel better?

While we’re down this way, isn’t the expression “put your feet up” lovely? Particularly, “Have a cup of tea, put your feet up”. There’s something so old time homey about it, something so ridiculously simple, that it almost convinces you that you already are putting your feet up. Extra points if it’s said to you by an older Australian and the last word of the phrase is “darl”. 

Hot air balloons in the morning sky are just ludicrously joyful to behold. They look like something out of a Dr Seuss book, or something Roald Dahl dreamed up. Silent lollies, floating through a fairy floss sky.

Fairy floss. There’s a noun other countries are missing out on. Fairy floss. Other countries call it cotton candy! How embarrassed must they be? Fairy floss. Simple yet evocative. Whoever thought of that should have a national holiday in their honour.

 Sometimes the universe does that thing where you learn a new fact or a new word or meet a new person and then that fact/word/person turns up three times over the next two weeks and it feels like serendipity tipping its hat to you in a bar. 

Serendipity is a word. I mean really.

The sound of a bell bird, clear and sharp, in the Australian bush - go and find it if you haven’t heard it recently. It is calibrated to slow down the pulse of the human adult.

To really bolster your experience of the joys of the everyday, try and hang out with someone new to your language. A child, say, or a visitor. Listen to the way they speak but also see the way you speak reflected in them. Feel your perspective shift just slightly.

Stand in a second hand bookshop and breathe in the smell. Notice how quiet it is in a second hand bookshop. So much more quiet than in bookshops selling new books. Why is that? Are they more densely packed? Are we more reverent around older books? Are the words better?

Bookshops are great when you know what book you want, but here’s an idea for a trip to a second hand bookshop or a library: don’t plan at all. Go freeform. Leave with whatever tickles your fancy. Although do be careful. I know someone who fell asleep reading poetry in a second hand bookshop with his back against the poetry and philosophy section. He had to be woken by someone who needed a Paul Satre book for her uni class.

Look, feel all you want to feel about triumph and disaster. When it comes to the bits in between, though, enjoy them while they’re not triumphant or disasterous. Those two imposters sound like hard work to me.

An edited version of this column appeared in The Big Issue. Please support The Big Issue and their vendors. They're an excellent collection of humans.

Yikes

Remember when it was the start of the year? Remember how things felt new? Well, welcome to winter. Welcome to never feeling like you’re quite on top of things. Welcome to yikes.

Yikes, it’s bin night. Yikes, that huge payment is due. Yikes, no day off in sight. No long, languid evenings in the slowly setting sun. No time left! Where did all the time go?

For centuries, people have been running out of time. For decades, people have sprinted out in their socks to put their bins out as a rubbish truck turns the corner out of the street and the bin juice runs down their pyjama leg into the kind of puddle it is impossible to see at 6:30am.

To prioritise these moments in the narrative of human existence, though, is an injustice to the good things. For there are good things. Here are some good things. This is a Public Service Announcement.

Treehouses are nice.

New socks are lovely.

How amazing is it that water is reflective? Imagine how dull life would be if lakes didn’t show you the upside down world.

Notice when a piece of music unfolds something in you. And how, in that moment of recognition, somebody is communicating something to you. How do humans know how to do that to each other? Good on us!

The dark silence in the country at night. Nothing like it.

How great is it when incongruous food tastes delicious? Salted caramel: what weirdo thought that would be a good idea?

The tingleingle of a teaspoon on china from another room. Delightful.

Sometimes, when you’re doing something, there might be a little moment where you catch yourself feeling like someone you love, and it feels like a secret between the both of you. Like for just a moment you got help being you. 

Similarly, maybe you see someone in the distance and you think for a moment that it’s someone you love. Whether that person you love is overseas, long gone, or just across town, it’s significant that your mind subconsciously managed to sort through all the people it saw and borrowed from one of them to give you what you wanted. A sad little trick, sometimes, but a way of reminding you that the people you love are a part of who you are.

Reading a book that gets you so involved that the feeling is very close to having something you urgently want to tell someone. There’s nothing like that feeling. 

Having your lap chosen by an animal: is there any greater achievement?

Everybody has somebody in their life who has been their best teacher. Have you been somebody’s best teacher? Have you thanked your best teacher? Was it someone who taught you in grade three? Or was it your mate Dave who taught you how to light a fire so that it actually starts every time? Thank a teacher. It’s a good way to be in the world. 

Pomegranate: the best named fruit? I put it to you that yes. Someone really thought about the pomegranate. It might not be the most practical fruit but it’s basically an apple with lots of cupboards in it full of perfect pink tears, so it feels like maybe it knows its own strength.

Sometimes being up high is cool. Like, maybe you get to take the dude who’s fixing the air conditioning onto the roof at work and you see everything from up a bit higher and you have to try and concentrate on what he’s saying because you’re actually trying super hard to figure out what that bit down there is and why you’ve never seen it before.

And lastly, here’s to tiny luxuries that are hardly worth mentioning. Like when you go somewhere for a coffee and you get a little square of chocolate slice on the saucer. You didn’t ask for the slice, you didn’t pay extra for the slice, you didn’t know you wanted the slice. The coffee, though, has now become a decadent treat. Expensive hand soap in wooden bathrooms in cafes. Better still: hand moisturiser! Sewing kits in your hotel bathroom! The glee one experiences at such joys will hopefully never diminish. Not with age, nor riches. Congratulations on being basically royalty. Well done you.

Enjoy it. It’s all there for the taking. This has been a Public Service Announcement.