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.

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.

 

Cracking the inner shell


Over the weekend, I watched an old movie. Old is relative – there was a time I’d consider an old movie being something from the forties or fifties. In this case – The Accidental Tourist – I reckon ‘old’ is around the late eighties. I guess that makes me old, too.

I remember watching the movie soon after it came out. For the most part, I liked it. It was an intelligent, well-made film, and it starred one of my preferred actors from the time – William Hurt (a very underrated actor). The character of Muriel (Geena Davis) grated on me a bit, much in the same way it grated on Macon (Hurt) initially. However, it was her personality that was instrumental in drawing Macon out of himself and in beginning the healing process – and, ultimately, to live again.

This is another movie I probably haven’t seen for 20 years, and it’s always interesting to compare the viewing perspective so many years apart. I’m sure last time I saw it it would have been an entertainment for me. These years later, locked in, the experience was very different.

I could see something of myself in Macon, certainly in terms in how I’ve been since being homeless, and for similar reasons – dealing with, and recovering from, grief. I used to be much more carefree, though there were many more reasons for it then than there are now. I want terribly to get back to that but seem incapable of it. I feel locked into myself with a boundary between me and the people around me.

There were other elements of the movie that tugged at me. Macon, at least, has a family to fall back on, however eccentric. I yearn to be enfolded in a family like that. I was, for many years, and accepted it without a second thought. You have a place in the family, and you know where you belong, and you know that if you reach out, there’ll be someone there for you. Love feels like a birthright and affection a given.

To watch the movie and to be moved by it in different ways was more of a reminder than a revelation. I know this stuff. I meander along dealing with it. I hope to change it.

Last week, I created for myself an internet dating profile on a site I had a lot of luck on once. I did it because I need an outlet in lockdown and a way of expressing myself. Love would look after itself, all I was after was a connection. I was very candid in my profile and the very act of writing it was good for me.

Before I published it, I shared it with some friends looking for feedback. This is not something I would ever have done before, but I do it now in the conscious effort to be more open, less guarded. I got great feedback. I was told it was honest and that any woman – any person, in fact – would be drawn to it. The reaction came as no surprise to me I found. As was commented, I write well and, even so, I felt as if the sentiments expressed were common.

It’s a funny thing, at that moment I felt a kind of revelation – though it was not something I haven’t felt before. I can be relied upon to express things well. I can be relied upon in so many ways because that’s who I am. I’m conscientious and alert and smart and methodical when it counts. All good things, you would think, but sometimes I feel as if the boundary I speak of is inside me.

Just by habit, I’m ahead of the game so often because I’m always calculating contingencies and plotting probabilities. God knows, I don’t always say the right thing – but I can be relied upon to say it with poise and style (or else, occasionally, deliberate and pithy bluntness). Generally, I know the right thing to do when nothing’s on the line – how to act, how to be, when to speak and when to stay silent. These are behavioural patterns if you like I probably inherited from my mum, who was always socially aware. I’m lucky in that I read people well, sometimes to their great shock. And I can write just the right thing in the controlled environment of an internet dating profile.

What it all adds up to is a certain knowingness that I think is one of my defining characteristics. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever seen me flustered, though I’ve definitely done anger. I don’t remember a time I felt panic, and I’m sure no-one has ever seen it in me. Mostly I say the right thing at the right time. I carry through. I’ve never failed to do what I said I would do, and have a reputation staked upon it. In so many ways, I’m a very functional human being.

But sometimes it infuriates me. There’s a large measure of control in being that person. It’s not conscious – it comes natural – but rarely does anything irregular or spontaneous leak from it. Listen to how measured I am describing it! The boundary is between the roiling, unpredictable self, and the self that translates that into rational and measured thought. Perhaps that’s why I write – because only then do I tap into that much more creative self. But this how I need to be I think at times like this – make mistakes, be unpredictable, go for it.

There was more of that in me before, and the truth of it is the control I speak of is what enabled me to survive homelessness and the despair that goes with it. I contained the blast to below ground, and it was a mighty effort – but I’ve been left irradiated by the job.

I commonly think that I need someone to show me the way – to take me out of that, as Muriel does Macon. I don’t know how myself, because knowing the problem doesn’t fix it and, in the meantime, everything keeps coming out smoothly.

The counterpoint to this, as it occurred to me last night, was how much I miss intellectual conversation and engagement on matters of culture and art and meaning. That’s the other side of me, questing and curious and restless.

It sometimes feels as if everything is contradiction, but I know well enough that what appears paradoxical is quite often in human nature perfectly natural. That’s not worth fighting or even wondering at. What’s worth doing is bringing the inside out.

Dreams and long hair


I think the hardest thing for me being in lockdown is the utter sameness of life, from one day to the next, and from week to week. There’s nothing that disrupts the monotony because the opportunities for variety are so limited. You could do a time-lapse of my life right now, and it would be a suite of scenes repeated again and again. For me, it makes the routine of life close to meaningless because you recognise in its sheer repetition. It’s no different from life before – except that before there was padding in our life to hide the fact, and enough variety to make it less critical.

The other thing, obviously, is the lack of human connection. I see Cheeseboy every Saturday morning when we walk our dogs, but other than that it’s incidental contact with people in shops, and through remote meetings – if you can call that a connection at all.

As I’ve expressed before, I accept it, but I don’t have to like it.

I had a dream last night, which, when I woke up, left me feeling more positive. The details are blurry, but I remember I did a lot of moving around in the dream and that a lot of it was work-related. There was an incident when I’d been called away to do some urgent work and had to briefly relocate. I was returning with all my stuff under my arm. As I passed by a woman said: “you’re a good looking man, man”. Then I was joined by a friend who helped me with my stuff – in actual fact an Essendon footballer, Michael Hurley. When I got back to my (company allocated) apartment, I found someone else had moved there. He’d pulled rank and taken over the vacant property when they were short of space. He said I’d have to find somewhere else. I knew better.

I didn’t make a fuss, I just dumped my stuff on the floor and made a quick call. A moment later he got a call from the top asking him to vacate and leave the place to me. He was bitter and complained about my ‘friends in high places.’ I just shrugged. I knew my work was essential, and it was valued, which is why I knew this would happen. Then I woke.

It felt like the old me in the dream. A me I used to take for granted. And I woke still feeling that sense of being valued.

It puts a different spin on these sterile days. I’ve been growing my hair long – haven’t had it cut since before started in lockdown back in March. I started off curious and without any great need to get my hair cut since I was working from home. It had a symbolic element to it also. This was reverting to type, I thought, to my natural and untamed self. It was an assertion of independence in a way, of individuality. Isn’t it strange where we search for symbolism, and where we find it?

I feel almost the opposite now, and it’s been coming for a few weeks. I now look forward to getting my hair cut (I can’t until we’re out of lockdown). Besides looking a bit tidier, it would signify a brighter future – a redo, a start again, a let’s get out of this lockdown and live once more vibe. There’s the symbolism I’m reaching for.

It’s all probably a bit strange and empty, but in times like these, the vague meaning of dreams and invented symbolism take on a greater significance. If it feels good, I’ll take it.

 

Reconciling the self


Every weekend, I catch up with Cheeseboy to take our dogs for a long walk down to the beach and back again. We start off with a coffee, and by the time we get back to where we started, it’s about 90 minutes later. Rigby loves it, and for me, it’s a good bit of exercise as well as the social highlight of the week.

Mostly we catch-up on a Saturday, but it was wet and windy last weekend, and so we deferred it until Sunday. As usual, we talked about all manner of things. There’s little ‘news’ to report these days as all of us are doing fuck-all, but there’s never any shortage of conversation.

On our way back, we passed a family coming the other way up towards Hampton street. The parents were out front, with their young daughter – maybe 6-7 – on a scooter coming up behind them. As we passed, we heard the daughter cry out: “I hope you never die, mummy.”

We both smiled at. It was sweet and familiar, too. We remembered how it was when you’re that age and get your first understanding of mortality. It grips you suddenly with the possibility that what you love most might be taken from you. It’s a cold, despairing thought, enough to bring you to tears, particularly when it comes to your mother. There’s no-one more precious to you at that age than your mum, and you can hardly conceive of a world where she exists no longer. It strikes at your heart full of devotion, and fear not knowing how you could possibly cope without her to shelter and support you. It’s like the moon disappearing from the sky.

Those memories are strong for me still, though it’s been many years, and though it’s coming up towards ten years since my mum died.

I bring this up now because it was a nice moment, and because lately, I’ve noticed that I’m starting to reference things to how they were before.

This is new to me. It never occurred as a thing before, but now it seems perfectly understandable – not that I like it.

I first noticed when I was clearing things out. There seems a subconscious acceptance of the situation I’m in, and it takes me by surprise when I cotton onto it. It’s probably an honest appraisal, but I wonder where it’s come from – before I’d be kicking and screaming before admitting that I might not end up with what I hoped for. That’s how it is though, I’m letting go of things I never thought of before.

A practical example of that relates to some Le Creuset cast-iron cookware I’d owned for about fifteen years. They’re lovely pieces, and great to cook with, but I probably didn’t use them more than half a dozen times in that period. They were two big for my needs, designed for big family meals, and not a willing single guy. That’s okay, or it was because I always figured the time would come when I’d have that family, except it never did. And this time, finally, I seemed to have acknowledged that when I put them up for sale. It was a turning point.

I began to see other things in a different way. I’d see old movies and remember when I’d first seen them, recalling my life at my time and what was happening and all that has changed since. It was like hopping into a mental time machine. I found myself becoming nostalgic about TV series from another era. As part of my regular clean-out these days, I was going through the drawers of my home entertainment unit. I sorted all the Cds into alphabetical order (by theme), then started in on the DVDs. I’d bought a few over the years, and there were others I’d ripped and burnt, or someone else had done it for me. We did a lot of that once, before there was any Netflix.

So, I’m going through the stuff and sorting into piles to keep or throw-out and, as I’m doing it, a lot more memories come back. Then there’s this series of thirtysomething from the late eighties into nineties. It may seem an unlikely program for a bloke like me to like, but I was right into it. The appeal, I think, is that I expected that was pretty much the road I’d be taking. I wasn’t thirty yet but looked upon these programs as being instructive in a way while being very engaging. I could – in the heart of me – sympathise with much going on. I’d recently fallen in love for the first time. Otherwise, I was pretty busy enjoying myself and meeting people. I was a romantic at heart, but hard at it too.

Fine, I thought, I’ll enjoy myself, and soon enough that’ll be my life too. Except that didn’t happen either. And all these years later I’m remembering that, remembering what I felt and thought, what I hoped for – and what I was so certain of. The sense of then and now was insistent.

I’ve probably wondered similar things over the years, and a few times it might happen after all. Never has it been like this though – as if I nod my head to it, yep, you got me. I don’t know if I’ve got to a certain age, but it feels as if I’ve crossed a boundary. I’m not sure what to make of it, but a part of me feels sad.

Though this feels new, I think it’s a part of something that has been growing more evident over time. I’ve alluded to it in the past.

I think it’s most clearly seen when it comes to working and expectations of myself. As you know, I’ve thought of myself as the man – as juvenile as that sounds. I always wanted to be on the pointy end. Always wanted to wrestle whatever challenge there was to the ground. There was a lot of ego in that and maybe even a sense of status, but I enjoyed it too, and the rewards were pretty good at times.

I’ve had to get used being back in the pack in recent years. Even now, that takes some wrangling occasionally. It’s not real, though. It’s instinct that pushes me forward, plus some remnants of ego seeking to reclaim some of my mantle and show the world what I’m capable of. So there. In a way, it’s a way of staying young. It feels so imposing sometimes, but it’s the form of it I’m really interested in – except when piqued, I want nothing to do with the reality of it. I’ve crossed a boundary there, too.

I’ve been pushing for a while for a promotion and a pay rise. Much of that is practical – I need more money – but it’s true also that I deserve more. I’m after my just reward. I’ve felt pretty grieved thinking it wouldn’t happen.

On Friday I found out two things. Firstly, there’s a wage freeze. Not surprising perhaps, but they might have told us sooner. And, unless I can wangle a change in role, there goes any chance of a pay rise.

By chance, I also had my performance review on Friday. You know how it goes. I hate it, as a lot of people do. I get embarrassed rating myself – I don’t want to be a wanker, but you have to promote what you’ve done also. There were about five categories, and I rated myself as either meeting or exceeding expectations across the lot of them.

As it turned out, I was hard on myself. When it came to the review, my manager rated me as exceeding expectations across the board, and I didn’t stop him. It was the easiest and most pleasurable performance review I’ve ever had.

Here’s the irony, though. Any other year I’d be recognised as a high achiever and rewarded with a decent pay rise. But not this year. This year it’s nice, but no dice.

I had a bad morning Monday. Felt a little off then my wi-fi was playing up and then an email came through about new appointees and I knew they were walking in and earning more than me. One thing leads to another, and it all snowballs. I didn’t want to have a bar of anything.

Later I calmed down. I’d read something, and my mind went off on a tangent ranging far and wide and, I thought, that’s who I am. I’m not the narrow person defined by my role because, among other things, it’s just a job. I am who I am in my mind, and it’s my mind that defines and ideas that interest me. That’s always been the case, but now I’ve crossed that invisible boundary it feels an easier thing to accept. That was who I was before – this is who I’m happy to be now. It’s not something I want to deny any longer. I’ve stepped beyond that conventional image of self.

Part of that means stepping away from the status and identity that a job provides. It means accepting that I’m not the man anymore and probably never will be again – and realising that I’m not really interested in it really. It’s just habit, and not a habit I need anymore.

As for being aggrieved by the injustice of the situation? That’s harder because it triggers some primal sense of right and wrong – but hell, the world is full of injustice, and if I’m not kidding anyone, a lot of that comes down to ego, too – “how dare you treat me this way!” There’s fun in that, and no glory either. Being aggrieved is just an angry version of self-pity, and that I don’t want.

How long this relative acceptance will last, I can’t say, but I hope to remember this. It’s a process of internal reconciliation I’m coming to.

I still want my just reward though, if only out of fairness 😉

To live is not enough


A few days ago, I searched out the obituary of a man I’d never heard of until the day previous. I’d read a piece he wrote that stirred and resonated with me – not a story, but a piece of nature writing that was familiar to me because I’d experienced similar in my own past. It was beautifully written, and by itself, that was enough to mark it out, but what really hit home was a point of view that I could share with all my heart. I believed as he did and, as he wrote, felt as he did, too. The piece of writing was called The Gift, by Richard K. Nelson. It contained pure grace.

As so often, when I come across something that takes my attention, I want to know more. Probably half a dozen times a day I’m tapping at a device or in my browser searching for more information on this or that. I discovered that Nelson was an eminent anthropologist and writer who had passed away just a couple of years before. I read about his life and recalling the piece I had read formed an impression of him – confirmed by the picture shown of him, a pleasant-looking guy with longish blonde hair, a red-tinged moustache, and a look in his eye as if to say, okay, take my photo then.

He was a man who had an evident passion for his work and believed in an almost metaphysical version of nature if the piece I read was any guide. He’d written about heading out in a canoe to an island with his dog. His family was back on the mainland in a secluded home. He was on the island to hunt for deer, which was their sustenance when winter came. The descriptive writing is rich, but it’s the mind and attitude that hooked me. I don’t want to simplify it, but it was the perspective of a man who felt himself a part of nature, and not above it. Too many are oblivious to it, or view nature and all its bounty as a right to be exploited (an attitude that is ruining our planet, and our mentality). He saw it as a gift and was careful to pay it the respect due to it – as he learnt from the Inuit.

Yes, he gets a deer. Then on the following day has an encounter that is lovely, and he’s sensitive enough to know how lovely and rare it was. I could feel it, too.

There’s a couple of things in this that I unpacked in my mind in the days that followed. I had a visceral reaction to it, to begin with. I could feel it in my stomach, like something that was meant to remind me. When I thought of it, I felt in a heightened state of grace. I could understand it. I could believe it. I was sure that his take on the nature around us was as true as a thing as I could conceive of. We are a part of nature, and it has wonders in it, if only we open ourselves to it. The other side of this, unfortunately, is that the rapacious way of the world as it is leaves me increasingly bruised. Maybe things should be a certain way, but they’re not, and I doubt they ever will be. In the meantime, what we have taken for granted slides away from us…

The other thing I felt was raw envy. That was how to live: to be in life, to feel it trembling around you like a gift, and to be passionately involved in what you believe in. His work had substance. It meant something. He’s gone now, but reading his obituary, it was clear his life was well-lived. That’s what you aim for.

But once more, I found myself examining the life I’m in now. I’ve always been restless and curious, and always keen to see what was around the corner. I had a lot of fun because of that and learned much, but I’m at a stage of my life that what I’ve done before feels inadequate to what I need now. What I need is to feel engaged and my work worthwhile. I want substance, I want meaning, I want to feel as if I’m achieving something worth doing. To live is not enough.

This is not new, and it’s far from the first time I’ve written about it. I feel as if that if I do nothing, the conveyor belt will carry me forward through dull comfort until one day it comes to an end. It may well be pleasant enough in its way, but that’s never been enough for me.

I had a project go-live last night. Most of it went fine, but I was on my computer last night and this morning and sending emails and messages because a few things were off. I was frustrated that it should be left to me to discover these things when the vendor should be doing QA before ticking it off. It occupied about 5% of my mind. It will get sorted. I’ve given directions, set deadlines, and etc. It’s what my life is now though, even when it all adds up to some supposedly great thing for business. Mayhap, but there’s no grace in it.

I was watching a program during the week set in Berlin in the fifties, and the thought occurred, why don’t you just take off to a place like that and make something happen? I like Berlin, but could equally be another place. Shake it up and see what comes of it. Maybe. I don’t know how practical it is – I have no money. And I don’t know in the end if a metaphysical problem can be resolved geographically. But at least it would be different.

I got told yesterday that I’m back FT starting next week, and that will make things easier financially. Stick around, and it will probably get better. I still have the issue of a two-speed perspective when it comes to working – not caring about it in the same way and ready to cut it some slack, until my ego intrudes and starts making demands, and that cycle again and again. But it’s just my ego – I can do that better, I should be doing that, why won’t you listen to me – while I don’t really care that much.

Like everyone who has a yen to look, I just need to find what’s right for me – what will fill and satisfy and give value to the days I have left. That’s all.

 

Edit: thinking about this, what I seem to be describing is a classic mid-life crisis. Because I’ve had so much shit go down I tend to ascribe so much that’s happened to that. It’s easy to blame irregularities on that, but maybe it’s time for me to let that go. Shit did happen. Residual shit exists. It’s legitimate to ask questions. There are things. But, maybe I should accept things for what they are rather than blame them on things I can’t change. I don’t resile from anything I wrote above – but maybe I should accept it for what it is and deal with it as it is, and not the shadow I imagine.

From history


After dinner last night I was in the mood for a long movie I could immerse myself in. I scrolled through the films on my hard-drive searching for one that would resonate with me at that moment. It’s a peculiar chemistry. Sometimes, obviously, you feel like one sort of movie over another, according to mood and biorhythms – say a comedy over something too serious. Sometimes the opposite. Even so, they’re broad categories, and it takes something more to decide you (though there have been times nothing has spoken to me). I go on gut-feel, instinctive reaction. It’s like looking into a woman’s eyes and sensing possibility there, or more – and nothing at all.

Last night’s winner was Lincoln, the Spielberg movie on the president. I’d watched it before and enjoyed it well enough without it leaving too deep an impression. That was not long after it came out, and maybe it felt time to review it again. It suited my mood in any case, and the need to engage with something that might stir the mind. I wasn’t looking for distraction, I wanted to think. It was only much later did I realise how apt a choice it was given the BLM rallies in recent times. If that had any influence on my decision, then it was purely unconscious.

I had only a dim recollection of the movie. though I knew the general thrust of it. Watching it this time, I was struck by a couple of things I don’t remember feeling the first time around.

This time I found myself admiring Daniel Day-Lewis’ seamless performance. It may as well have been the true Abe Lincoln on-screen because there was nothing visible of the actor. I imagine that takes a powerful gift of humility and dedication. You see actors who always ‘play themselves’, and to some degree, that is true of most. Most actors have their idiosyncratic ways – gestures, tics, habits. Most of them absorb it into the performance, but some never transcend themself. The great actors are different. They become the character they portray. To do so must take imagination and the rare ability to subjugate oneself to the art.

To admire the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis was, in a way, parallel with admiration of the man he portrayed. Now, I don’t know how true a rendering of Lincoln we see on-screen to how he was in life, but there’s plenty of history and commentary that give us a fair idea of who he was. We know he was a monumental figure in American life. We know what he looked like, and we gather his folksy, wise ways. We know he was a man of fortitude and persistence. And we know that his death was mourned by thousands of Americans, unlike any president until Kennedy. Even many of his opponents mourned him.

In this movie, as portrayed by Day-Lewis, he is a man of great humanity. We know that to be true, I think, though it never stopped him from prosecuting the war against the south. What drove him to do that was his innate sense of justice. As cruel as the war was (and it was more terrible than most), it was necessary to bring justice to his country. We see that in the movie,He had a clear-sighted determination that most of his advisors and contemporaries lacked. He navigated his way through party politics and bigotry and ambition, knowing what must be.

Earlier I spoke of acting and how ego plays a part in it. I think Lincoln probably had a decent ego, but it was in balance within him. Most of the battles with ego occur inside us, striving to be ourselves or to prove it. Lincoln had no need to prove anything, and so his path is gentler, willing to be open and humble and ever-sensitive to others, but never veering from the course of action set himself. It feels as if he takes in people with his folksy manner and home-spun stories, but he is cleverer than any of them. Gradually they come to realise that. He was a great man and a wise leader, and you wonder what further difference he might have made had he survived the assassin’s bullet.

As always, when I see portrayals like this, I feel wistful. Oh, to have such leadership now. I can think of no-one in the world today, with the possible exception of Angela Merkel, who approaches greatness in any regard. Many have gone the opposite extreme – more terrible than we deserve.

Remembering Lincoln now given the tumult of BLM is timely. It was an education to watch and listen last night with knowledge of how it is now, and what’s been happening. What would Abe do about it? He would act with generosity, grace and wisdom – i.e. the opposite of what we’re getting.

These are times we can take lessons from a couple of great American presidents.

I was reading about FDR during the week, and how he came to power with the depression in full swing. The election that year was him against the incumbent, Herbert Hoover, who had presided since before the depression started. Hoover was of the austerity school of economic theory. He believed that private industry would drag America out of the depression, and steadfastly refused hand-outs or economic stimulus. Come the election the American people had enough of that and booted him out in a big win to Roosevelt.

FDR set about doing just about the opposite of Hoover. He’s famous now for the New Deal, which dragged America – and possibly the world – out of the great depression. What dd he do? He spent money by the barrel-load. To the millions unemployed and living in poverty, he gave hope, as well as the means to survive. He ploughed millions of dollars into great stimulus activities, the most notable being the Hoover Dam. In effect, he gave the economy a financial transfusion that got it up from its deathbed.

What’s less well know is that a few years later he reckoned the economy was safe, and at the Treasury’s insistence it was time to balance the books, and spending was cut. What resulted was something that came to be called the Roosevelt Recession in 1937-38. The reduction in government spending and investment led to a sharp economic downturn. It was only when Roosevelt defied treasury and launched into a new spending program that the economy began to recover. Money creates activity which makes more money.

This should sound familiar to anyone following the economic discussions today in light of the pandemic, though it’s a conversation that has raged since the 1980s. This is what we face now.

In Australia, JobKeeper and other stimulus packages are like a mini-version of the New Deal, but already the government is threatening to turn it off. If history is any guide – and most economists – then we know what will happen if they do that. This is not something we can risk for ideological reasons, or because our leaders lose their nerve. Go hard and keep going until we’re through.