What comes next?


Yesterday was one of those strange, in-between, days. I’m still on leave. I had the TV on, switching between the cricket and coverage of the events in Washington on CNN and the ABC. In my lap was my iPad, and I doom-scrolled through many comments and updates on Twitter. That was most of the day.

The day after it seems strange still in many ways. I still don’t know what will come of this. I was amazed to see so many Republican senators uphold their objections to the election results when they were certified last night. If nothing else, it’s an abysmal reading of the room. And what did they hope to achieve? Surely – not even they – can hope for the results to be overturned and for Trump, magically, to be restored?

The only answer I came up with is that they’re playing to their deplorable base – the terrorists who stormed the institutions of democracy yesterday, and the 45% of Republican voters who supported it. This is their signal to them affirming that they’ll continue the fight, no matter the fight is foolish, futile and destructive. It’s all about power.

It doesn’t inspire one with hope. Where now with the GOP? Trump has ruined them, near enough, as a coherent political force, but I still think they can do a lot of damage. The hardline conservatives will continue on their path, bolstered by the support of the sort of people that stormed congress yesterday. They’ll give hope the radical right and be a voice for them. It won’t go away, and I expect they’ll be a thorn in the side of any attempts to re-integrate America into a single nation.

There are moderate Republicans, but they seem in the minority and will likely splinter from the party’s rump.

The good news is that the Democrats are back in control come a fortnight. Things can only improve across the board. Common sense policy-making and decency will make a return, and the hope is that it will filter across the world, especially here to Australia.

There’s no doubt that Morrison has modelled himself and the party behind him into a version of Trump-lite. He uses many of the same tricks as Trump – the open, brazen lying and corruption; the refusal to face scrutiny; the undermining of discourse and commentary by refusing to engage, and deflecting it as false news; and the sheer arrogance of pursuing an agenda that suits the party and his mates ahead of the national interest. And they’re just as lazy as each other.

It will be harder now for Morrison with Biden as president and setting a much gentler tone for the world. He risks being marginalised in a policy sense, and his style grating when politics becomes more accountable. That’s my hope, but in the meantime, the Labor party, and Albo, have to step up, and I have little belief that will happen.

But back to America. I think one of the big problems they face goes to their very soul. They have been inculcated with American exceptionalism from the day they’re born, but there’s little to justify it. America is great by virtue of its size and (waning) power, but the moral edge Americans have claimed has never really existed.

It’s an exceptionalism that is now at odds with events, and it’s the conflict between belief and reality which has caused so much grief. Trump campaigned on a slogan of making America great, and those who invaded Washington yesterday are firm in their belief that America should be top-dog.

The world has moved on. America is an insular country and for the most part, has no idea of how proclamations of greatness are so tiresome and ridiculous for the rest of us. It sounds so often like immaturity, claiming at something without complete conviction.

Watching from far away I’ve always found it curious some elements of American culture that appear naive to my Australian eyes – the reverence for institutions, both political and religious; the rituals and ceremonies that litter American public life; the love of high-flown rhetoric and sentimentality in general; and the need to advertise their patriotism. Perhaps it says more about Australians. We’re a pragmatic, sceptical and unsentimental race, and I find so much American culture both foreign and endearing.

This is not an attack on America. Some of the very best of us are American – but so too, as we have witnessed, are some of the very worst. I’ve consumed American arts and commentary all my life. I love American literature. There are some great thinkers come out of that land. But, so it is for most places, without the scale or the fanfare. We are all individuals.

I think the overt nature of American patriotism clouds reality. It is automatic and unquestioning, a reflex without real consideration. Events are cracking that facade now. Like someone who has belonged in a church all their life with unquestioning faith confronted by evidence that casts doubt, this is a time for Americans to examine themselves and what they stand for.

They don’t need to be top-dog. I think that’s gone anyway. As they say, be the best version of yourself and leave everything else alone. This is a time for humility and reflection. I believe the commentators who claim they can put this right – but they need to address the blight at the heart of their problems. They have to say it out loud and own it. Only then can they overcome it.

That’s what I think.

Magic and wonder


I read this morning that the author and naturalist, Barry Lopez, had died.

I’ve read a lot of his stuff over the years. He was a luminescent writer with a keen eye and an open heart. He’s known for his writing on the natural world, but he also wrote more conventional stories. In either case, his prose was sensitive and drew you close inside the essence of the tale.

I think this happens when you have an extreme sensitivity to the world about you – not as something you travel through, but exist within. As a naturalist, he was drawn to detail and understanding context, and the result of that was naturally spiritual.

When you realise that everything has a life and purpose, that the world around us and we within it co-exist within layers of dependencies, then you begin to see a depth of meaning that eludes most of us, most of the time.

I was always found his writing illuminating, and often enlarging. He had a way of showing the wonder in enchanting things. He was one of those writers I would occasionally set aside midway through just to contemplate what I’d just read – to feel it full in me and abundant, to capture some of the truth of it and hold it in me for a while. And that was true for his stories as well as his naturalism.

He was 75, which seems relatively young, but I envy how he saw things, and the delight it must have filled him with.

By chance I’m reading a book by another naturalist right now, Richard Nelson.

He shares with Lopez a lovely lyrical gift of seeing and describing that is almost spiritual. It seems to me to be truly close to the natural world is a humbling and spiritual experience, and it’s there in their words. There’s a weight of meaning that is the very opposite of superficial. In all cases, a forgotten virtue – respect – is essential.

Reading this book, I’m reminded of the years I would go camping with my step-father and hunt for game. Mostly, we’d be far from civilisation. We’d stop in places where we were the interlopers and surrounding us raw nature. I would feel it every time I heard the call of an animal in the night, or see their tracks in the morning, or see the great gusts of cockies fly through the air before settling to cackle at us. The nocturnal thump and scrape, the movement in the bush felt as much as seen. And the owls in the trees looking on, hooting at their desire, and the wedge-tailed eagles majestic high in the blue sky as they circled and swooped.

We visited some out of the way places – out past Narrabri in the hills, the back of Bourke in red soil country, in scratchy brush and drought lands and places green and rugged. Just being there felt eye-opening, because it was a life very foreign to what I knew and understood in the city. I was a sensitive kid, and I felt these things, sitting in the fork of a tree overlooking it, or later by the fire with the scent of wood smoke in the air and deep night beyond the circle of light. Often it felt wondrous and bigger than anything I had ever understood.

There’s a morality to that world you can touch when you’re awake to it. You fit into it. That’s very present in the words of Lopez and Nelson, and most naturalists I’ve read. There’s an innate humility when you realise that life is all around you. I wonder if part of my problem is that I’m feeling an increasing disconnect from that sense of morality.

We live in an age of rampant hubris, and when our arrogance has become so extreme that we are destroying the environment we are part of and killing our future. This is what happens when you feel you are above all life and the environment is there to serve you. This happens when there is no balance or perception, when life is consumption, without magic or wonder.

Re-alignment


On the way back from the shops earlier, I stopped by the local cafe to get a take-away coffee. As I paid for it I told them to charge another one to me and to gift a coffee to someone deserving of it, their choice.

I’ve never done that before, but it felt like something I needed to do today. It’s quietly therapeutic to give, and good for the soul in general, I reckon. It’s underrated, but after a tough year, it feels entirely appropriate.

I’m better today than yesterday, though a long way short of being just right. I still feel vaguely nauseous, and still feel vaguely tired. I figure the nausea will go away in due course, but the tiredness won’t unless I do something about it.

As I’ve said before, I reckon as much of it is psychological as it is physical. I spent ah hour in bed last night thinking about it. I felt in a bind, but at the same time felt as if I’d reached a point that there was no possibility that the old ways could work for me. I’m not who I used to be and I have to adapt to who I am now – but there’s the bind.

I suspect many are feeling some variation of that after the year we’ve had. I spoke to Donna yesterday and she reported much the same as I did. She’s intelligent, vivacious and a high-achiever, but it was months since she’d felt motivated, she said, and had little interest in what she was doing. I’d said that I no longer had the will to do the things I did before, and she leapt on that – yes, the will was gone.

For me, that’s a hard one to swallow. As much as anything, I defined myself by my willpower. I would make things happen. I was a man of steel and iron will. I would persist, I would defy, I would prevail. It came to me quite naturally, without effort. I think many still see me as that man, but I’m not anymore. I’m still determined, I still have some attitude, but I don’t have the hunger anymore, nor the belief, and certainly not the purpose. The will to be more and do more has lapsed.

That’s a hard one for the ego, but perhaps it comes with age and a certain maturity? I don’t know – this is the first time for me. Perhaps it is part of a re-adjustment that most of us have to make at some stage?

The challenge for me, and for Donna, and for all I know, for countless others, is managing that adjustment – and knowing what we’re adjusting to. If the will is gone, and the hunger and desire that drove you before, then what takes their place? There has to be something else if the old things and old ways no longer work for you. What are those things? What feels that hole?

With lockdown passing and a return to the office next year imminent, perhaps this little crisis will pass. I expect that’ll be the case for many. They’ll just slot back into the old groove and be grateful that it’s so easy.

I doubt that’ll be the case for me. I’m a more complex dude, and I’m at the stage of my life where these junctures are significant. To be honest, I don’t really want to go back to how it was. It feels false now. Inauthentic. And I guess that’s the proof that I am a different person now.

I don’t have the answers. I never do. I’m worn-down and impatient and just a little sad, but I can’t push it. It’s something I need to negotiate my way through. Get my strength back first, mental and physical, and then figure out what I’m meant to be doing.

A new year is an apt occasion to re-align, thought I don’t think it’ll be anywhere near as easy as that.

The nub


About half an hour after I posted yesterday I was in a meeting. I’m probably in 3-4 meetings a day, and sometimes more. Some of them I’m there as an observer, but mostly I’m an active participant, and occasionally I lead them.

The meeting yesterday was about an app release in progress. They’ve been a few bugs, which we discussed, and then UAT to come next week, which I’m managing.

I listened to myself as I cut in listening to the description of a problem. I posed questions and proposed solutions. It seemed reasonably clear to me, and though I was surprised that it wasn’t as clear to others, I wanted to impart my understanding to enable the solution.

I heard my voice, firm and confident. I was no less incisive than ever in my life and at times even interrogatory as I sought straight answers to straight questions so that I could frame the situation. Everybody quietened as I spoke, listening in, curious. In short order, we got to the point I expected, and thus a solution was defined.

I don’t highlight this because it’s unusual, because it isn’t. Rather, I find it hard to reconcile these moments with my general disposition, as I described it yesterday. It’s as if something sparks into life when I spot a logical inconsistency or spy a solution, and I resonate with it. You could call it habit perhaps, but I think it’s more instinct – a reflex outside my conscious mind. And it’s my conscious mind that is playing up.

I think this is one reason that so few people have a clue that I’m having issues. I still present as pretty confident. My thinking remains clear, my communication concise. One of my gifts has always bee to grasp the heart of the matter quickly and to nail it, and that remains so. The architecture of my outward, working self remains in place. To that extent, I remain effective.

The issues I describe affect me less in my personal life, not that I’ve had much personal life to speak of over the year. I feel some sense of tenuousness, but I’m no less definite or certain in my dealings with others. In fact, I remain surprised often why others are less definite – it’s as if I can’t comprehend the lack of focus. It’s strange given all the rest of it, but it suggests that my fundamental self-belief is unchanged. It’s everything around that that has shifted.

Unconnected to any of this, I sent a link to an article about grief to a friend yesterday. He responded straight away, disagreeing with much in the article and the tone of it in general. After some back and forth, he replied to me with the quote he believes best describes what grief is:

“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love.
It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot.
All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest.
Grief is just love with no place to go.”

That’s a quote from Jamie Anderson, and it’s very pretty and true enough in what it is, but, as I responded to my friend, too narrow in my mind. Grief is more than just about love, though it can be interpreted very broadly.

I reacted and hardly without thought typed out my experience of grief. It’s worthwhile to read for the sheer spontaneity of it, but even in retrospect feels true:

…My problems – I think – are all about grief, and not simply because my mother died. Grief for all I lost, a place in the world, peace of mind, a sense of security and purpose, a meaning to what I do. A great sense of existential loss

Maybe that’s a kind of love, unfulfilled. Herein is the nub of the situation.

Remain vital


I wonder if I’ve reached the age now where thoughts of the last third of my life become more prevalent? It makes sense that they should as I advance into that stage – but there feels something unsatisfying in it.

Its been a gradual realisation, almost unconscious. There I was yesterday, imagining my life in comfortable retirement, without giving it a second thought. And yesterday morning, on my weekly walk with Cheeseboy, we touched upon the life to come – where we’d live, how we’d live, and the simple pleasures we look forward to as part of that.

It’s not the first time we’ve done that, though both of us are probably a dozen years from retirement. At one point yesterday, we imagined the same scene – a house overlooking the ocean, a sunny day, and the simple pleasure of having a cool drink sitting on a deck overlooking it all.

It seems for quite a while now that I’ve had a settled view of the life to come. If not the house overlooking the sea – I doubt I can afford that – then a comfortable cottage in the bush somewhere. Room to move and an open sky. There would be the sprawling veggie garden I referred to yesterday, which I’d tend to every morning.

I remember as a boy I grew vegetables in our suburban back yard, and the sheer delight of discovering the budding fruit of the young tomato appearing overnight; or the unexpected find of zucchini or a pumpkin hidden in the foliage. The bonus now is that I could turn these things into food for my table.

And that’s the life, as I touched upon yesterday — a life of growing veggies and indulgently cooking. Afternoons reading by the fire or an open window and perhaps engaging in conversation over a glass of wine or a gin and tonic. In between, as I went about my daily business, my music would play, and all of this the pillars of my simple life – good food, nourishing literature, and the music of my life. And writing, which I would set to every day at the appointed time.

By itself, it sounds fine, but to what end? I would need other things — friends of course, and hopefully, someone to love and be loved by, but even so. I would need to travel still, to enlarge my mind and experience – that mustn’t stop. And human interactions.

This, more or less, is how I’ve unconsciously imagined it for years. It seems a good life in many ways. Why complain? Because it seems to me that to live well is not enough, one must live deeply. And to experience that truly, there must be some risk, some danger, some leap of faith and courage involved. To immerse yourself in the merely pleasurable comes at the cost of vitality.

For some time now, my relationship to books and reading has changed from what it was. It is less satisfying, though I read just as much as I ever did and take as much pleasure from it. As I think about, it feels as if books have become entertainment to me, though I’m still provoked and stirred by them.

The difference is that in all the many years I browsed bookstores and collected books up till recently literature was a part of who I was. I read as if I would learn something as if in the pages of the classics I pored over there was enlightenment to be found and meaning for the path I was on. I read as if there were secrets I could unlock that would make sense of what I did and felt, what I yearned and strived for. Literature pumped through me like life’s blood.

What’s different now? I’m older now. Perhaps I’m more cynical; certainly, I’m more bruised. The life I imagined as I read those books has now passed me: I have been and gone, and here I am.

I thought of this again this morning as I added about 20 books to a wishlist, mostly NYRB publications. There was excitement thinking I will likely read them one day. And fascination wondering what I would find. That hasn’t changed. And probably over the next 18 months, I’ll buy each and every one of those books, and others, and more to come, many more, in the years ahead.

But to what point? That’s the critical question. I feel such a dilettante reading for its own sake, as has been true for the last 10 years. There must be more to it. And the difference, ultimately, is that once I could see myself in those books as I if I too could live that life and take on those adventures. I imagined myself loving as the characters did, being swept up in romance and volatile times. That’s how I would live. That’s what I would do.

And I did, for a long time. Books taught me experience, and I went out and found it for myself. I travelled, I loved, I caroused and journeyed, I looked deeply into things and found myself provoked and stimulated. I learned. It was good, and I’m grateful for it, but it’s like all memory, once it’s done you can’t go back. They’re photos in an album.

I went deliberately searching for vivid experience and being unsafe for so long has probably cost me the comforts of a settled domestic life. There are times I miss that, and I regret there are things I missed out on.

Now that I’m coming into the last third, what remains true? Is it that settled and domestic existence I can come at belatedly? Or is some return to the vitality of creating new experiences, over and again?

What we’re talking about here is possibility – the possibility of new and challenging things in your life. It’s been in short supply the last few years as I’ve scrambled to get out of the hole I was in. I want to think that I will feel it again – the sense that anything can change, that there surprises still in store, and mountains to climb.

I’ve come to the stage of my life where I realise that it’s the poignant and the sublime that fill me up. That’s what I searched for in books once upon a time, and then in life. The times I have experienced it have felt almost holy to me as if I was on the cusp of an understanding that always eluded me. It was enough to know it was there, and to feel that – and to quest to find it again.

I don’t want to fade away. To live well is fine, but I need the vitality of life to make it meaningful for me. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that – and I think that accounts for my general state of mind in recent years. I really don’t know if I was ever made to play it safe. Tempting as it is, I want to feel alive – no matter how old I get.

To break the cycle


It’s about the time of year I start counting down to Christmas. I don’t remember it always being this way, but it’s been true for the last few years.

It’s probably natural to look forward to occasions like Christmas, and to those milestones and way-points that chart our course through life. I sometimes wonder how it would feel if there were no markers and no boundaries: if years and months were never created, if seasons didn’t happen, and anniversaries – almost by definition – ceased to exist? It would be a life of white noise I suspect, and very satisfactory.

If nothing else, milestones and the like help us to chart our progress and measure where we’re at. They’re symbolic of hopes and plans and indicative of order and discipline we need to feel present.

So, it’s natural to look forward to Christmas for many reasons – for the break it entails, for the family gatherings and sharing of occasions, for the definition soon after between one season of our life to the next.

Not all of that applies to me anymore, but it used to, and it would fill me with expectation. Nowadays, it’s the break I look forward to most as the occasion of Christmas is just about a non-event for me.

This is what is different from before. Before I would anticipate pleasures to come; these days, I look towards a finish line, I feel myself staggering towards. I need solace.

So it is again this year. I’ve been struggling for a while and soldiering on. I feel as if I lose a bit more momentum with each week that passes. I’m tired, physically and emotionally, and weary of work, which appears both tedious and without value at this time of year.

I force myself to the line, but I don’t have the go-ahead I used to have, and even the raw, stubborn will to continue has leaked from me week by week. It’s habit and discipline and perhaps a few tricks up my sleeve that keeps me productive – though much less than what can be.

That’s how it is. I need the break over Christmas to replenish my reserves, most of which are spiritual. Then, the theory goes, I’m ready for another year of it.

So, what’s the flaw in that plan? It’s boom and bust. It’s spiritually pointless. It’s a cycle of depletion and recovery, depleted by something that I have little interest in and recovering to do it again.

I need the break, but I need to break the cycle, too.

Hang in there


I get that this lockdown has been pretty tough, and getting tougher every day. And I appreciate that all of us are struggling with it to some extent, but some pretty badly. And I share the impatience of most people. But…

There’s no shortage of talking points around this. We’re bombarded every day by conflicting, hostile narratives and click-bait headlines, most of which make everything feel worse (the media’s reputation has taken a pummeling).

I have genuine sympathy for the premier and the medical professionals behind him who’ve mapped out the course out of this because they’re in an impossible situation. There are so many different opinions even among experts, let alone the self-styled ‘experts’ in the media and online that there’s no right answer for them. No matter what they say or do, there will be someone critical of it. In cases like that, it’s best to stick to your guns and hold the line. That’s what they’ve been doing.

I wish we were coming out of this quicker, and with more certainty, but the intermittent flare-ups along the way worry me. They’re proof of how quickly this thing can get out of control. In the wash-up, it seems very sensible to me that we err on the side of caution. An extra week or two now is better than further months in lockdown if we don’t get it right.

That’s a very sensible, level-headed take on the situation. I understand when others aren’t so level-headed. The media is very unhelpful – really, their motivation seems not to enlighten but to inflame. And many are directly affected by lockdown. If I were the owner of a small business or in hospitality, I’d be chafing too. And then there is common folk just doing it hard.

I read a lot of comments like that on social media. It feels quite foreign to me. I know we live in times when to share is second nature, but there’s so much I read I wouldn’t dream of sharing publicly. I don’t know if that says more about me or others.

It may also seem a strange comment from a man writing on his publicly accessed blog. I’ve been pretty candid here for many years and have made a point of not holding back when it comes to the uncomfortable stuff. My defence is that I write this anonymously, though in this day and age it’s probably not that hard to find out my true identity. More fundamentally, I write this for myself, and it’s a fundamental part of my mental health because by writing I will often lance the boil, and as I lay down these words I find an understanding lacking before. It’s therapy.

I guess the point is, I don’t write for clicks or likes. If you read this or not is a matter of indifference. I’m not rapt up in how you respond or what your reaction is. I’m insulated from that, whereas that seems the very essence of so much social media these days: not just look at me, but see me. And acknowledge it.

I’m sure there have been theses written on the topic, but I suspect the difference is generational. I grew up without any social media, and in a time where computers were new-fangled and the internet unimagined. I was never conditioned to be so transparent with every feeling and event in my life.

I often feel uncomfortable reading the intimate news of strangers. I can understand people being more open on something like Facebook when the audience is hand-picked friends and acquaintances. Still, it’s puzzling on a site like Twitter to read of every raw and intimate detail of a strangers life and mentality. Mostly, I don’t want to know about it.

That stands by way of caveat when I say that I don’t want to act the victim. Terrible things are happening, but I refuse to be cowed by them because this is my life. It will be what you make it to be. I’ll deal with the facts of it, but I won’t pander to the base elements of the situation, nor give in to hysteria or self-pity. I don’t intend for that to sound harsh – these are my decisions.

How others feel, or choose to feel, is their business, and they have my support. I just don’t need to read about every woeful detail of it. I may be wrong, but I think we have a duty to each other to stay strong. And we’ve done that mainly – just a little more, just a little longer.

When ignorance fails


Bit of a bombshell yesterday in the ICAC (anti-corruption) hearing in NSW when the NSW premier was called to the stand and revealed that she’d been in a lengthy relationship with a former parliamentarian accused of dodgy dealings.

Naturally, it caused an uproar. Most were flabbergasted by the news. A good many said that she must resign (but with different motivations), while others claimed that her personal life shouldn’t come into it.

I don’t really want to comment on the rights and wrongs of it. It’s the human interest angle that fascinates me. Generally, I’m of the view that the personal lives of our politicians have no bearing unless there’s evidence of criminal or corrupt behaviour, or if it risks the integrity of the office. Everyone’s entitled to a life of their own, and if they choose to engage in behaviours a bit different to the rest of us, it’s nobody’s business but their own.

For me, morality barely comes into it, though I might form an opinion on someone if something saucy is exposed. Having an affair with another man’s wife or if you’re into threesomes, or even if you get a blow job from an intern in the Oval Office, should make little material difference to your ability to do the job.

Gladys is ‘guilty’ of none of those. She’s a single woman who found companionship with a fellow parliamentarian. I’m sympathetic towards her. While others rail at her foolishness or accuse her of corruption, I see a person subject to the same very human whims and desires as most of us.

It’s very simple for people to look at everything through a political prism. In that way, everything becomes good or evil, and there are hard lines – and rules – that separate one from the other. That’s why you see a lot of grandstanding and people getting on their high horse, because the landscape has become so toxic, and because, for many, this represents opportunity. Some will rail against this in one person but excuse in another.

There are more sensible commentators, thankfully. They are independent-minded and clear of the muck. A lot of them are sympathetic but declare that Gladys should probably go because she’s perceived to have turned a blind eye to the dishonesty of her partner.

I doubt very much Gladys is corrupt. I think she has limitations as a leader, but I’m not sure that integrity or dishonesty are among those. Her faults, in this case, were human. If she chose to overlook his faults, she did so as a woman, not the premier of the state. She has a heart too, and hopes and fears and the need for comfort and the desire for love. Unfortunately, this may be one of those occasions where the premier can’t be separated from the woman.

Whether she survives this or not, I think her leadership has been fatally wounded. In politics, perception so often becomes a reality. In this case, the truth is that she was intimate with a man shown to be corrupt, and who tried to use her to further his own cause. I truly believe she wanted nothing to do with it, but she did nothing to stop it. Ignorance is not always bliss.

Where you find meaning


One of the salient aspects of lockdown is how everything slows down. You’re contained within a location and constrained from meeting others face to face. Every movement is small – from bedroom to study to kitchen; from home to shops, or the circuit in which you exercise or walk the dog. Your window on the world is literally your front window, or those brief occasions you get out, or via the TV screen. Routines barely waver because there’s nothing to disrupt them. External distraction is barely a thing.

In this world we have, it seems, and by necessity, become much more internalised. I was discussing this with someone the other day and we agreed that it’s not necessarily a bad thing and, in smaller doses, perhaps even a necessary thing. In times before we were sadly lacking in this. It’s been welcome to return to ourselves and to the smaller movements of domestic and family life. The problem is, there’s little balance. Hopefully, in times to come, there’ll be a healthy balance between being in the world and feeling it.

Fair to say, I’ve always had strong internalised tides. I used to think that I felt things through my skin, even as I led a pretty robust lifestyle. I was always aware or was most of the time. I thought and pondered, I considered and contemplated, and I could feel it in my stomach as something tenuous but precious. This situation has only accentuated this tendency.

I’m sure a lot of people find themselves reflecting in times like these. I have too, though without particular intent. It’s a bit different for me because while many others have become more conscious of their family around them, I have become conscious of how little family I have. It’s something I’ve become accustomed to over recent years and so I don’t miss in any practical way what I don’t have. There have always been occasional pangs when I feel the absence, and that still happens, but no deeper or more frequent than before. I have grown more detached from it if anything, but the context feels different – more historical almost.

One of the constant reminders is the constantly changing photos on my bedside smart device, as I’ve written before. It seems to me that every week a different photo catches my eye and slowly insinuates its way into my thoughts. Almost all of them are family photos and from family occasions. I walk around while at the back of my mind I carry the image from the picture. For the most part, the occasion is lost to memory – dinners at random memories say, though others I remember, such as when I became godfather to my nephew. It feels strange to me and often quite distant. I wonder sometimes, was that really us? Was that really me? I can recognise myself, but looking back I look different from what I remember. The space of time – up to 30 years – has given me an entirely new perspective, but at the same time, it feels as if I’ve carried a story all this time which has grown and shifted over time until it bears little relationship from how it started. It feels as if that would forever have been the case if I hadn’t set eyes on these old pictures again. In a way, it feels like a reset. It feels as if what I see with my eyes is truer than the memory.

That’s a funny feeling – almost as if you have to review all that you’ve taken for granted. And, yes, I know, some of that will be false or exaggerated. It’s natural to feel more sentimental now, say when you set eyes on people no longer with us. But it also causes you to re-balance the things that have important in your life.

This weeks photo was taken at some indeterminate restaurant sometime in the early to mid-nineties. There are six of us at the table and, as I glanced at it, I realised that three have since passed away. It’s an incongruous thought when you peer at healthy faces with beaming smiles. It’s a moment caught, which is one of the things about photos obviously – they don’t change, while the people in them do.

I’m sitting at the table at the end nearest the camera. I’m wearing a jacket that looks pale in the photographic exposure. I remember the jacket well when I look at the photo – an oatmeal coloured linen jacket that was a favourite for many years. I have a cocky smile on my face, leaning forward slightly, handsome and dashing – like a Spitfire pilot out on the town. I look so certain of myself.

Opposite me is my step-sister. I’ve noticed in these photos that she’s always close to me. She had a thing for me when my mum met her dad and thereafter we were close. That was the case for many years, a dear person to me until mum died and everything went. In the photo, she’s good looking and a little plump, as she was in the early days. Later she loses the baby fat and blossoms into an attractive and intelligent woman. I miss her.

My sister is there, as is her husband. They’ll part about 15-20 years after this, and he’ll abscond to England to live with a woman he met through Facebook. Very modern. Very tawdry. Later he’ll die over there from a massive heart attack. It’s a shock, but not altogether a surprise – he had unhealthy habits and a tendency to binge. And there he is, locked away in an old photo.

Also there, as in most of these photos, are my mum and her husband, my step-father, both dearly loved. They’re smiling, as always. For mum, there was nothing better than being with the people she loved most.

I caught sight of that photo on rotation last night. I leaned in to study it more closely. As often, I felt a sense of wonder and a vague melancholy.

I wonder: what was my life then? What did I think? What did I expect? What restaurant was that? What did I order? Who was I? And: how is that me?

I went away from it and I thought, that photo will continue rotating, and with others, even when I’m not there to see it. Even after I’m gone as long as someone plugs it in. It’s a fragment of memory that’s broken off and lives on in cyberspace. It’s me that gives it context – without me, it’s just a photo of a bunch of unknown people having dinner together. There’s no history. No meaning. But looking at it again there’s a historical perspective I didn’t have before, and from it erupting other moments and possibilities and revisionist conjectures. But only in me. I give the photo meaning. I suspect that’s true of much of life: we give it meaning.

That may be a realisation many are now experiencing in this lockdown. It seems a simple and obvious thing, but those are the things we forget or take for granted. I only have photos, but I reckon lots of others with family around them are feeling a lot more present without the distractions of former times. You don’t want to lose that or let it drift out of shape.

Twenty years of going backwards


Twenty years ago we were in the middle of the Sydney Olympics. I remember it so well.

I remember the feeling in the week leading up to the Opening Ceremony. There was a great sense of anticipation mixed with wonder. As Australians, we were aware that this was a big deal and that the show we put out to the world would come to represent us as a people and nation. It seems a heady thing, but I think we all felt that. At work, we would come together, getting a coffee or over lunch and wonder what we would see. There was some wariness, but also great excitement. Myself, I was confident that it would be fine.

Rather than going for a drink on Friday night after work, most of us headed home to watch the telecast. I ordered takeaway and settled down to watch it.

What I remember is thinking: we pulled it off. The ceremony was quirky and entertaining and touched upon Australian iconography, and all of it seemed true to our history and nature – or how I perceived it, at least. I laughed at times, partly because I was entertained, and partly because my relief had become fulsome pride. I had tears in my eyes at other times. I felt it fill and expand me. This is the Australia I believe in, I thought. When Cathy Freeman was revealed and lit the Olympic flame, it was a moment that transcended the event.

Over the next fortnight, I watch all the big events cheering the Aussies on, and we did well. I didn’t travel to Sydney, but I went to the MCG to watch the opening match of the soccer competition. There were fantastic moments that have since been inscribed upon the national consciousness. One was the 4×100 metre freestyle relay final in which Ian Thorpe guided Australia to a win in the final 5 metres. It was the event where Klim said we broke the Americans like guitars.

The biggest event of all was the women’s 400-metre track final. It was the event the whole nation held it’s breath for. In it, Cathy Freeman took on the world. She was favourite, having only been defeated only once over the distance since 1996. She was symbolic of many things – not just a rolled-gold medal chance, she was an indigenous woman representing much more than Australian sporting prowess. That she was also a charismatic figure added extra weight to the occasion. Every one of us wanted her to win. Every one of us tuned in to watch. Every one of us carried inside us a cruel knot of emotion, mixed equally of the fear that she would lose and the belief that she must win.

I wonder what might have happened had she lost? She didn’t, though. She opened up on the back straight and won easily. It was such a controlled race in the midst of all this crazy. The crowd simmered and roared, flashbulbs popping like crackers and broadcasters rode the emotion as they called her across the line. She seemed so calm. In retrospect, it seems like she was never going to lose.

It seems a funny thing to say, but I think it was a great moment in Australian cultural life. There was an excellent documentary on TV last week that commemorated the event, and which explored the symbolic intent of the win.

Australia has won many Olympic gold medals. We’re one of the most successful Olympic nations over history. There are many – dozens – of memorable gold medals to celebrate. This was different though because it caught a moment in time.

This was our Olympics. We came out in droves to support it, and in years to come it would be declared the best Olympics ever. One of the reasons for that is that we as people gave so much to it. It was our Olympics, and competing on our behalf was a young and charismatic indigenous champion. It was only a few years before that Mabo had been made law, and long-overdue steps towards reconciliation had been taken. Cathy Freeman was timely because she was a part of that wave – included, one of us, not excluded, as before. I think finally she represented hope, which is a grand statement.

It was the year 2000. A new millennium. We were riding high, economically and culturally. We had an LNP government, but the ambitions and vision of the previous Labor governments of Hawke and Keating were fresh in us. Life was good, and when Freeman won it felt meant to be, yes, this is our time.

It’s been a different story since. It’s almost heartbreaking to look back ad see how much has changed. I engaged with a journalist during the week when she brought up much the same. Yes, I said, we fucked up. She agreed – but pointed out, not just us, but everyone. She’s right.

I tend to look back and consider that things went wrong when John Howard became prime minister. He’s celebrated by the conservatives like royalty, but I tend to think in the pantheon of shithouse leaders – and we’ve had a few lately – then he is the very worst. Not because he was less capable. Incompetence is an excuse. He was always capable, but he’s always been a narrow, bitter, possessive type, more inclined to put his mark on things than to seek what’s best for all of us. He started the so-called culture wars. Where the government before him had been inclusive, he was exclusive. They had ideas and ambition and a concept of Australia as something more than a country at the bottom of the globe living off natural resources. But Howard rejected that because he was threatened by ideas he couldn’t grasp. Famously, he aspired to the ‘relaxed and comfortable’ world of the fifties. Very deliberately, he killed off the progressive policies of the government. Hawke and Keating had grown us as people, but Howard made us smaller.

As an Australian, I’ll never forgive him, especially when you consider what has come since. He corrupted our politics and lowered the bar to a degree that such utter fools and mediocrities like Abbott and Morrison could become PM.

It was not just Australia, though. I think a lot changed on 9/11. I know I never felt the same after that. Suddenly, there was the knowledge that I wasn’t safe. It felt as if we’d been naive before not knowing it, but what delight there was in that innocence. 9/11 ushered in corrupt politics and fear and the neo-conservatives taking over and a narrower, more partisan view of the world. Something had opened. Now it closed. It led to a succession of incompetent conservative governments in much of the world in recent times and in the background the looming spectre of climate change – now in the foreground.

Perhaps we were naive in 2000. Life will never be like that again. Even if the pendulum swung back – as it must do at some point – and we get some sensible, progressive government again, then I fear it’s too late. Climate change has done us in. Those vainglorious fools who refused to accept or do anything about it, who sought personal power before the good of the world, who rejected the science out of political expediency and led us down the garden path – that will be the legacy they leave to the rest of us who don’t deserve it. If there is to be a history, then that’s what it will record – too late.