STEPtember (aka “What the hell have I got myself into?”)

Let’s get the most obvious fact to ever fact out of the way straight up: I loathe exercise.

It doesn’t matter what it is. If it is going to make me sweat or ache or move more than the absolute bare minimum, I have no time for it. There has only ever been one kind of physical activity I have enjoyed to any degree – for those playing at home, it was kayaking – and one of its key traits is that one tends to do it sitting down. I have never experienced, nor do I particularly believe I am personally capable of, any kind of post-exercise high beyond thanking the stars above that it is over and done and I will never have to endure that lost time ever again.

Thus, me signing up for a challenge that involves doing 10,000 steps a day is utterly farcical at best, the stuff of my personal nightmares at worst.

Yet, three weeks ago, I did just that. I put my name down for STEPtember, the annual fundraising event for the Cerebral Palsy Alliance, an organisation that focuses on funding support services, equipment and research into the causes and treatment of the condition.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I did it. Maybe it was because I am quietly sick and tired of everyone saying that if I got more gentle, stress-reducing exercise, it could well be the miracle cure for my mysterious paralysis events, and I want to prove them wrong. Perhaps it was a subconscious desire to lose weight (yuck), or just to see what my body can do (cool). It might have just been a desire to do something nice for other people rather than wallow in my own self-pity for a change.

Whatever the reason, I’ve gone and done it. I’ve committed to a month of reaching 10,000 steps a day, even if I have to do so fuelled entirely by spite. And two days into my “warm up” phase, my regret is palpable. I’ve got my first blister, I’m utterly wrecked to the point of not being able to get out of bed after 5,000 steps yesterday (I worked up from 3,000 steps the day before), and the idea that the month hasn’t even started yet? Hoo boy.

In an extra feat of stupidity, I’ve also committed to adding an extra 500 steps to my daily target for every $500 raised. So that’s a terrifying thought. I guess I’ll soon be discovering how many of my friends are absolute sadists.

But despite all my misgivings and quiet despair at all the decisions that have brought me to this point, I do find myself recognising that despite the world falling to pieces and there being a literal pandemic on, there has been no better time for me to give this a crack. I don’t have any major commitments to take time away from hitting the targets, I’m not going to get any younger, and my previous experience with Love Your Sister has taught me that doing something good for others is the best thing I can do in terms of getting back on track to being a functioning member of society.

Though the next person who tells me “you’re going to feel so good at the end of it!” is going to be strangled with my Fitbit.

You know, once this is over. Because (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) I’m using it right now.

If you want to chuck some dollars in for the cause, or because you want to see me suffer through an ever increasing daily step target, it’s all here.

An old grave in a green cemetery. Poorly photoshopped on are the words: "Here lyes [sic] the body of Noni Doll. DOB to 30-9-2020. Died of Steptember. Aged 30 years."
Above: Me at the end of this. Probably.

The Apology

For Lorca, Fiona, Yul, Layla, Jake, Freddie and so many more.

My grandmother saw the subs in Sydney Harbour
In 1942.
They were black, menacing, 
And undeniable.
They told the story plain and clear:
War was on the doorstep.

My father, nearly sent to Vietnam fields,
Saved by that tall, great man
With a voice like sweet thunder
Making my birth just that little more likely,
Relieved from that war they swore 
Was almost on our doorstep.

Mine has been a charmed life,
Safe from man-made quakes and thunder,
Bringing down walls and cutting off breath
And scarring bodies and minds and landscapes,
Killing both civilians and dreams.
These are saved for my television screen,
For I know war has never been on my doorstep.
But now I see the flames, and the dry,
Records broken without fanfare,
The blackened stubble of ancient forest
Rattling with the screams of fauna burned beyond nightmares.
The death count grows,
And river flows
Cease
For longer than they ever have before.

So I look into the eyes of my sweet friend’s child,
And I say:

“I’m sorry. 
They lied.

They said war never changes,
But it has. 
And it is here.
Only now we are not fighting men,
But man’s hubris.
We are not dropping bombs,
But raising degrees
And I cannot guarantee
That you will see
A life as full of green glory
And safety
And luxury
As I have been blessed to be living.

I’m sorry.
They lied.
Because even the blindest of us can see
This is not business as usual.
And yet here we are,
Standing in the middle of our very own D-Day
Wasting time as the clock ticks away,
Our greatest obligation
Ignored,
Refusing to acknowledge
That the war 
Is no longer on our doorstep.

It
Is 
Here.

I’m sorry.
We failed.
We didn’t beat down their doors
Threatening to eat them alive if they didn’t pay attention
Change the direction
And take the bitter pill to fix the sickness
Early enough
Or often enough
And now the burden is yours.”

Because she was born in smoke,
Two months old before she took a clean breath.
And I, three decades gone,
Only now with the fire in my belly
To match the rising temperatures.
But is it too little
Too late?

“But there are other considerations!”
Like what?
Party donations?
Tell that to her little, sweet face,
That won’t know entire species
Her mother drew pictures of
Out in Namadgi Forest.

Like what?
A coal-fuelled economy?
Not in this century,
Where even our buyers are looking to bail.

They’re criminals, all of them.
Warmongers, baying for blood,
When the time comes to send our children to battle
For oil
For false democracy
For whatever the septic tanks call for.

But a war that could be fought without a single life lost
No drop of blood spilt
That is already here?
No, that would be too much for the budget to bear.

But the war we waged on Earth is still here,
And we are not winning.
We are a heartbeat away from defeat,
With only ourselves to blame,
And only minutes until midnight.

And some of us could not be more sorry.

*****

This was going to be my submission for the Dubbo Eisteddfod 2020 in the Original Poetry section. But then Covid19 happened, so I’m putting it here instead.

Because even though we’re all stuck inside because of one disaster, we’re on the pinnacle of another, and we’re running out of time to stop it.

Like The Ocean – a spoken word poem

Fuck me to the sound of the ocean
In a cottage on a cliff
On a big brass bed that creaks with each ragged breath
We push from our heaving lungs

Fuck me to the rhythm of the tides
We won’t be making love
We’ll be making waves
As high as mountains
That will make the rivers jealous
That will wash away the rockpools
And send uncertain sand dunes into the sea
To travel beneath the water line
Until they settle on a new shore
Building islands out of our sweat and touch and heat.

Fuck me to the sound of the ocean
Release the nereid within me
Send her back to her home in the spray
Away from this feeble human body
Let her run with the horses
Rushing at the shore
Before she catches the riptide out to the wide blue yonder
To the Pacific, swallowing half the world
The Atlantic, unforgiving and violent
To the Antarctic, cold and full of secrets
Until she returns to Poseidon’s arms
For their sabbatical on land
Where they will fuck on a noisy bed
In a house by the sea
Until the waves roll them out again.

*****

This poem was written at 4am, recorded at 3pm, with production completed at 11pm, all on Friday July 24, 2020.

I’m not certain if it might be something, but I’d love to see if I can get some other poets to write and record a new poem in under 24 hours, and then make a podcast out of it.

Working title: Pantseat Poetry.

Whether something will come of it remains to be seen. (I shan’t hold my breath.)

x N

How We Stay Alive

I knocked gently on the huge wooden door. It didn’t matter how softly I did it, the air still shook with loud booms every time my knuckles tapped against the timber, as if I had pounded upon it with giant fists, but I was used to it now.

No answer.

I tried again, and again three deep, loud sounds echoed from within, but still there were no coming footsteps, and the door didn’t open.

“Dee?” I called, “Are you home?” I tried the handle and found it opened easily. Out, but expecting me. That would do.

I pushed the door open with my shoulder as I backed into his home. As expected, it was bleak and dirty, heavy curtains closed, candles burning low in their holds. The stone walls were filthy and damp, and the only thing saving the floor from being worse was that it was still dry somehow. The table was covered in debris: scrolls and books, mostly, but there was also a variety of bowls, glasses and flasks half full of unknown mixtures; liquids and solids. Thankfully, I knew the bedroom would be mostly untouched from my last visit, the perks of having a friend who doesn’t tend to use it very much. The smell was immense, but not as overpowering as usual, which was a relief. I could see that he was trying, at least, unless this visit was sooner than usual. Time is a confusing concept when it comes to our friendship. It was the main reason I was there and he wasn’t. The other reason was that he was almost always away with his work, but we always did our best to catch each other when we could.

I laid down my bucket of cleaning gear beside the table, plucked the bottle of flowers from its place on top, and cleared a spot in the centre of the table where I could place it. Then, to the curtains, which I threw open to let the morning sunlight in. Illuminating the room immediately made the state of things clear, but it also made it seem a lot more manageable. Opening the windows helped dispel the stink somewhat, and would keep the smell of chemicals down once I started scrubbing.

I started by clearing the tables, moving all the books and scrolls back to their place in the bookcases in the study, giving the shelves and desk a quick dust as I went. Once that was done, I made my way through the house, plucking the dying candle stumps from their places one by one, dropping them into my bucket; later, I would melt them down to make new ones, infused with the smell of parchment and sandalwood, so that they would cover the inevitable smell of damp that came with living in a cottage that was a running water connection away from being a cave. It’s the little things that make all the difference, I think.

Then came the rubber gloves, the mask and the scrubbing. Usually, I tend to find cleaning vaguely therapeutic, but when it takes as long as it does to do this job, I need a little something to keep me going, so I put a podcast on my phone and got into it. We both love The Blindboy Podcast. He was the one who found it, but we got hooked together. Something about the massive swings of light and shade between Blindboy’s opening banter and some of the bleakest of his short stories really tickled us. We compare notes every week via email – it’s the only means of communication that doesn’t get messed up in the time continuum conundrum.

*****

The first time we met was as client and service provider, so to speak. I’d been seriously ill for weeks with a really bad case of pneumonia, brought about in part by an ill-advised drunken dance in the rain in the middle of a Canadian November. When they realised it was starting to look like I was on my final countdown, they medevac’d me back home to Sydney so my ninety-six year old great grandmother could see me one last time. I was barely conscious most of the time, something I was later incredibly grateful for, yet for some reason I was totally lucid when Dee came into the room. He says otherwise, but I don’t think I’d remember it as clearly as I do if I wasn’t.

I watched him as he pulled out his pen and clipboard – he’s super old school like that – flipping through the pages with a concerned look on his face, which given his features was quite the feat. When people who’ve met him are asked to describe him, they always come up blank, because he’s always shifting it around, a blur of eye colours and hair and genders and cheekbones, but always strangely comforting in that inconsistency. He told me once it’s because he’s always trying to find the most appropriate appearance to calm his client, but he’s seen so many faces across the years and had so many different reactions to his arrival that he can never be sure which one is right. So he phases through all of them, because he figures that way the client will see who they want to see, or more importantly, who they need to see. It could be a friend, or a family member, a doctor, or a long lost love. The last time we talked about it, he told me a story about how one woman was convinced he was Keanu Reeves. He said he did his best to roll with it, but felt like he hadn’t seen enough of his movies to do the star justice.

As he flipped through to the last page, he sighed the most gentle sigh I’ve ever heard. (Again, his voice is never the same twice, though I know it well these days.) It was a happy sigh, one of relief. He sat down on the chair next to the bed, and took my hand, squeezing it slightly.

“Casey,” he said. “I don’t get to say this very often, but today, you get a choice.” He picked up the chart and showed it to me. The first few pages contained my full name, my date of birth, a selection of pictures from the last year and information about the hospital, my family and friends, and various other assorted facts and figures about my life.

On the last page was the current date, a cause of death, and a subheading above two check boxes.

The top line said “optional”, and the boxes were marked “accepted” and “postponed”.

He stayed with me as we talked about what it meant. He said that he lived in an eternal present, so he couldn’t tell me how long I would keep going if I chose to stick around, just that he would be seeing me again in what was the same instant for him, but a different time for me. He told me that he couldn’t say if there was something beyond life, again because he had never lived beyond the realm of now. Most importantly, he told me that the choice meant one thing: not between life or death, but between two Great Possibilities, and he couldn’t tell me which was greater. Each would be painful in their own way, but each also promised relief. I had to choose which one I wanted to take.

Obviously, I postponed. And he left.

He was right. The pain of recovery was excruciating, not just physically but emotionally, watching my parents and brothers fretting every day, all the while wondering if I was ever going to get strong enough to be a functioning member of society again. He was also right about the relief, as every day I found it easier to breathe, and every day my family and friends breathed easier too.

*****

Three years later, the accident happened. Head on collision at an intersection near my flat, all noise and metal and blood. I’d been walking home from work, and was lucky that I hadn’t left five minutes earlier, or I could have been in the middle of the carnage too. Two drivers dead, one drunk, one kid in the back of the car screaming, one mother in the passenger seat trying to calm her as they waited to be wrenched from the twisted wrecks, their fronts crumpled and mashed together to the point where they were nearly indistinguishable from each other.

I Tapped Him On The Shoulder

He hadn’t expected to see me, and I hadn’t expected to see him. But there he was, two places at once, filling out his paperwork. I noticed that he wasn’t showing it to them like he had to me. I guess they didn’t get to make the choice I did.

Once one of him was done and gone, and the other seemed almost finished, I raced over to the one left and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned, startled, eyes wide. “You!” he cried. “You… no, no, no, no, this isn’t right. You don’t get to do that! Nobody gets to do that!”

“And yet,” I said, gesturing to each of us in turn, “here we are. Doing that.”

He let out a little squeak of panic, not knowing which way to look. “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit…”

And then he was gone. Not in a puff of smoke, though. Just gone, not even leaving the sense that something had been there before.

And the world moved on.

*****

The water in the bucket is black with grime now, so I get up and empty it into the sink before refilling it, silently thanking past me for convincing him to hook up some decent plumbing. It was really no surprise that he hadn’t got it done before. Have you ever tried to get a tradesperson to come to a house that exists outside the conventional understanding of time and space? It’s an absolute nightmare. Thankfully, I managed to get my hands on some decent books on the subject from the local library, and it turns out that when timelines aren’t a factor in your existence, it’s very easy to get those little DIY jobs done around the house. Given that he doesn’t use it, he did an incredible job on the toilet too.

The walls were leaning a little more towards grey than greenish-black by this point, and were completely dry. I double checked the bedroom almost needlessly – everything was in its place, the bed made perfectly just the way I taught him – then started on the floor, scrubbing then mopping, then a quick final spray of cockroach killer in all the nooks and crannies I could find, and I was satisfied I had done enough. It was far from perfect, but it was presentable enough for me.

I pulled out my phone and typed out an email. “Swung by, but you weren’t in. Then again, you probably already know that…!”

Send.

*****

My great grandmother died when she was 102, with the whole family around the bed. I wondered if I would get another chance to talk to him, this face-changing, voice-shifting mystery Death man-woman-both-neither. This time, he surprised me.

“Hey.”

I nearly jumped a foot in the air. His voice was lower this time (or was it higher?) and breathier (or maybe just thinner?), but I knew it instantly. “Argh! Fuck!” I shrieked, before I suddenly realised that the whole family was looking at me with disapproval. “Sorry. I think something landed on me,” I said, sheepishly, swatting at my forearms in an attempt to persuade them of the existence of an imaginary insect assailant.

He chuckled, walking past me to sit with Gran-Gran. Once again, he pulled out his clipboard and flipped through it. Unlike the accident, I was closer this time, so I could see what was in it. It was just like mine – the details, the photos, the stories – but this time, he leaned in and whispered something to her. I saw Gran-Gran sit up, but not sit up, like she was out of focus with herself, as she listened to his murmurings. She smiled, and I think she winked at me. Then she patted his hand gently, like she did to all of us when she wanted to congratulate us on a job well done, and lay back down into herself.

Suddenly, my aunts began to wail.

And the next day, I found a post-it note with an email address in the back pocket of my jeans. On the other side it said, “Shit timing, I know. But… friends?”

*****

As I’m packing up my cleaning gear and getting ready to head out, I heard a key scratching in the lock. I called out, “You left it open!” but it’s too late; he’d already locked it again.

“Shit, shit, shit…” I heard him mutter through the door. I stopped questioning how it’s even possible to do so through wood that thick long ago.

When he finally unlocked it again and swept in, I laughed at him. “I don’t know why you even bother with opening the door, let alone a lock. You’re a potentially incorporeal being. You could just pass through it, surely,” I said.

He shrugged. “It helps me stay down to earth?” he grinned. “Good to see you,” he said, hugging me. “I’d say it’s been too long, but you know…”

“Yeah, yeah. You tell both of those jokes literally every time. You really need to get some new material.”

*****

The reply came back almost immediately, which I couldn’t help feeling was weird as hell. Then again, so was the idea of becoming friends with Death, but in for a penny, in for a pound.

Most of our early conversations were had through email. We discussed his gender (fluid for work, but he tended to roll with male pronouns since it was what most people were comfortable with), compared jobs (turns out being the Grim Reaper requires both more and less effort to achieve work/life balance than being a marketing coordinator) and talked about his most recent clients. He said that he didn’t know when he’d started calling them that (conversations about the past were particularly frustrating at first) but he felt that it gave him the right balance of connection and professional distance.

Since we hadn’t needed them in our conversations, we didn’t use names, but eventually I realised I wanted to know what I should call him. “Death” sounded like a job description now, not a name. He said he’d always just gone with what everyone else called him, so he answered to heaps of different things, but I insisted he have a name just for me, just for friends. And so, I christened him Dee, because I am not a particularly imaginative person.

After what was a few months for me, I asked him about where one lives when one isn’t living on the mortal plane. He told me it was complicated. And it is. It really, really is. I don’t even know how it works, and he’s explained it to me at least a dozen times. But he showed me how to access where he lives, and now I can do it.

Just don’t ask me how I do it, or we’re both going to end up confused.

*****

We spent the rest of the afternoon looking at his experiments and reading stupid stuff off the internet to each other. I suggested he should come meet my friends some time, but he wasn’t up for it. He said it would be too much commitment and he’d be afraid of scaring them. Most people don’t like to think about their own mortality, let alone be faced with the supposedly mythical physical manifestation of the concept. I said he was probably right, but I did add that my friend Belinda had worked with some pretty terrifying animals back when she worked at a zoo, but he just went quiet. I hated when he did that, but I let myself figure that he was just thinking about all the cute animals he had to guide through the death process. Did he even do animal deaths? I decided it was better not to ask.

Then, in one of our more comfortable silences, I asked him, “Hey, I’ve been wondering: Am I your first friend?”

He scrunched his ever-changing mouth in unease. “No. I’ve had plenty of friends. It’s just…” He sighed, reminding me of the first time we met, only this time there was no relief in it. “Eventually, I have to take them as a client. And it hurts. All the time, because for me it is happening all the time.” He looked at me. “So please, don’t ask me again,” he said, softly.

“But this is important to me,” I said. “I need to know that when I eventually go, you’ll be okay.”

He smiled slightly, ripples dancing through his features as his eyes changed from blue to green to brown to hazel to purple to white to black and beyond. “I’m always okay. That’s the other side of the coin. While it’s true that I’m always saying goodbye, I’m also always saying hello. And ‘thank you’. And ‘I love you’. And laughing and hugging and kissing and playing and joking,” he said, wistfully. “Because such is existence, if not life. It’s just now, the moment. It’s the Greatest Possibility there is, and I get to live it all at once.”

He laughed, or maybe sobbed.

“I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”

*****

The illustrations accompanying this story were created by the delightful Daisy Mak, who lives on Instagram here.

An Atheist’s Favourite Parable: The Good Samaritan

It may seem strange to think that a faithless woman such as myself has a favourite story from arguably the most influential religious text in our society, but it’s true. I do.

Here’s the quick version, which you’ve probably heard before.

A man is travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he’s attacked by a bunch of robbers. They stripped him, beat him, and left him to die by the side of the road.

As he’s lying there, a priest comes down the road. He sees the man, but ignores him and keeps walking.

Not long after, a Levite (a Jewish man who had a lot of status at the time due to heredity) came along. He too saw the gravely injured man, yet kept walking.

Finally, a Samaritan comes along, but unlike the others, he went to the injured man, bandaged and treated his wounds, before putting the man on his own donkey and bringing him to an inn, where he continued to take care of him. When he left the next day, he gave money to the innkeeper, telling him to look after the injured man, and that any extra costs the innkeeper incurred would be repaid upon the Samaritan’s return.

Now, Jesus tells this story to explain being “neighbourly”, and thus demonstrate the kinds of people who exemplify the way we should treat each other. Once he’s finished, he asks, “Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?”

The response given is obvious: “He who showed mercy on him.”

“Well, duh,” you might well say. But to take the story at face value without understanding its context in the period causes us to lose its most potent meaning.

Let me retell it in a modern context. It’s a little bit longer, so bear with me. (I’ve also added a bit of extra editorial in white that you can read by highlighting the text. I couldn’t help myself.)

A man is walking through a dangerous part of the city at night, when he’s set upon by a gang of muggers. They steal everything he has, strip him, beat him, and leave him the gutter to die. He barely manages to crawl out onto a street where there is a bunch of foot traffic before passing out.

As he’s lying there, a preacher comes down the road. He sees the man, figures it’s all part of the Lord’s plan, and keeps walking.

Then comes a politician. He also sees the injured man. He figures he’s probably going to die, so no point burdening the health system by calling an ambulance. Plus, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who’d vote for him anyway. He keeps walking too.

Then a rich man comes through in his limousine with tinted windows. He rolls down the window to see what that thing by the side of the road is, then once he’s clocked the injured man, he rolls his window back up and tells his chauffeur to keep driving. As they leave, he mumbles something about “druggies” taking “my tax money” through welfare.

Finally, a Muslim woman sees the injured man. She calls an ambulance and rides with him to the hospital. She waits in the hall to see if he’s going to make it. When he wakes up, she helps him lodge a police report and cancel his cards before she drives him home. Over the next few weeks, she continues to check on him, bringing him food to make sure he’s eating properly, until he’s fully healed.

And so the question remains the same: Who’s example is it that we should follow? Who is our true neighbour?

So, what’s the purpose of changing the identity of the characters, from the priest and the Levite, to the Samaritan?

It’s quite simple: those who walk past the injured man are always the people with the power in the society, often admired and glorified by many. In this world, that would be the rich capitalists, the politicians who make laws that favour the rich capitalists, and the religious right (especially those who can be found preaching the Prosperity Gospel, which is utter bosh).

More importantly, you could change the identity of the Samaritan character to any of a number of disadvantaged groups that are regularly discriminated against: a trans person, a person with a disability, someone in financial difficulty, an Aboriginal Australian… It’s sadly quite a long list, but the point is that it’s not the identity of the person that we should concern ourselves with but the actions.

And that’s why this isn’t just a “do the right thing” story, it has this question of identity that is at its core.

The name “Samaritan” doesn’t mean “a good person” in the way it does to many today. The Samaritans were, and still are, a specific religious and ethnic group within the Israelite races, and in the time of Jesus, the Samaritans and the main Jewish population hated each other. They destroyed and defiled each others temples, which is probably the most severe way I can think of telling someone you’re never going to be friends short of actually killing them. Even once the story is over, the man who asked the question that prompted the telling refuses to name the Samaritan as such, calling him only “he who showed mercy”. Pretty damn telling, that.

And yet, this story focuses not on the background of the Samaritan and whatever preconceptions Jesus’ audience may have had about them, but rather the actions of the individual, proving they matter more than whatever you might think about the person before they perform said actions. It’s this tendency to cling to ideas about what people are or should be rather than looking at evidence of what it is they actually do that is the fuel for racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and every other shitty way of thinking that pervades the way some members of our species think.

The other reason why this story is so important in our modern context is that those who walk past the injured man not only do so in the story, they walk past those in need in the real world every single day. The religious right put their desire to be a bigot before recognising the needs of the LGBTI+ community (and others outside their church) to be seen as human and to be treated with love and respect. The politicians treat the poor with disdain through programs like Robodebt, or refusing to raise the rate of payments that haven’t risen in real terms in over 25 years, and are well below the poverty line. The rich don’t pay their taxes and treat their workers (and the rest of us) like dirt.

I’m not a complete fool; I know there’s nothing we as individuals can do about the rich and the religious right. There is, however, one group that we do have influence over: politicians, especially given so many of them profess to be of the Christian faith.

The fact that this story is still so incredibly clear in the work of our political class clearly demonstrates that a significant number of folks who proclaim to be Christians, most notably the hierarchy, has a long way to go in earning their place in their own eternal life.

So if you see your local Christian-identifying MP at church, or if you feel the impulse to write a letter or give their office a call, ask them: what are they doing, not for the priest and the Levite, but for the Samaritans?

For it isn’t the way we treat our friends that demonstrates our morals and our worthiness.

It’s the way we treat everyone else.

quote-true-compassion-is-more-than-flinging-a-coin-to-a-beggar-it-comes-to-see-that-a-system-martin-luther-king-87-72-21

Little Decisions, Little Projects

Before I start this week’s blog, I want to treat you to a little (relevant) musical interlude.

Since the start of this year (and to be honest, since very late last year), I have been doing my best to commit myself to a handful of little things. So far, they include: a weekly-ish blog post, a photo a day, a few pages of a (secret) major project a week, organising a climate action protest, a nightly routine… It’s not a long list, but there’s certainly a few things on it.

While I was in Canberra, I found these things relatively easy to achieve. Despite sharing a one bedroom flat with my mate Sophie (who has a brilliant podcast you should listen to) for the better part of a week, I managed to develop a degree of routine to my days, ticking through things I wanted for myself, both in terms of being constructive on a personal and slightly more professional (is this blog professional? idk) level. I wrote. I remembered my meds. I started to organise a small scale protest against climate change. I even found myself waking up naturally at a reasonable hour. It was freakin’ great.

But the day after my return to Dubbo, I felt all my energy sapped. Wednesday, the day I’d set aside to write this blog post, was a write off: I started it with an “ice pick” headache – the kind where you feel like someone is ramming an ice pick into your temple – which was then followed with waves of bleakness that is the hallmark of my lighter depressive episodes. In the days since, I’ve struggled to get things back on track, which I was really hoping wouldn’t be the case – surely a week is enough to build the beginnings of good habits?

Nevertheless, I’m still doing my best to make attempts at following through on these little things, doing my best to make the little decisions required to get through the day without feeling like I’ve done nothing with it. It’s really fucking hard, and I don’t think that it’s visible from the outside just how difficult it is to have to consciously think through every step of being a functional human being, but I’m trying.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go wash my face, brush my teeth, take my meds, write in my diary and get into bed, because that’s what real people do, and that’s what I’m (re)learning to be.

This New Year Needs A New Climate Attitude

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, New Years Eve is usually my favourite time of the year, but naturally this year was different. The smoke haze covering Canberra is near Dickensian, and I started my night with the news that my aunt and uncle had just lost their home to the bushfires near Ulladulla. In a horrific twist of irony, members of my family regularly gathered there to usher in the new year. To put it incredibly frankly: shit is fucked.

To have all this happening at a time when I’m trying to recover from 18 months of PNES bullshit and some of the most severe depression I’ve had in a long time makes me feel like taking time for myself is selfish and impractical. This is a time when I personally really need to be focusing on the smaller picture rather than the bigger one, but it’s the latter that feels like it needs addressing first.

And the fact that it could have been addressed ten, twenty, even thirty years ago has me infuriated.

On December 11, there was a protest in Sydney’s smoke haze calling for action on climate change. Living in a very, very safe Nationals seat, it felt like anything I could do in solidarity would be pointless, but I still felt like I had to do something. Two days beforehand, I decided I would have a sit in out the front of my local Federal MP’s Dubbo office. I didn’t care if I was doing it alone or with company, still I posted my plan on Facebook to welcome those who wanted to come along. I managed to get six others to join me, and we got a lot of support from people walking and driving past.

What we weren’t expecting was for Mark Coulton MP to be there.

After an hour of standing in the heat, we were beginning to consider going home when our MP walked out of his office, carrying a suitcase.

Coulton asked us what we were doing, and we told him that we were there in solidarity with friends and family marching in Sydney. We asked him if he had any comment to make. He laughed and replied, “No, no comment.”

Our group expressed significant disappointment and frustration as politely as we could. His response? “I support those who do practical things.”

Practical things. What a crock. This is a man who has the ability to write and vote on legislation that could turn this situation around. This is a man who voted to repeal the carbon tax, which was proven to have had a positive impact in terms of reducing Australia’s emissions. This is a man whose entire electorate is in severe drought with no end in sight, and is at incredible risk of longer, hotter droughts in the years to come due to climate change, whose government signed off on giving 12 billion litres of water, caveat free, to Adani for their new coal mine.

As citizens, there’s only so much we can do. One hundred companies are responsible for 70% of the world’s emissions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant portion of them currently pay little or no tax. Hell, in Australia they’re likely getting Government funding. We can do all the practical things we can – moving to electric vehicles, putting up solar panels, divesting from companies that invest in fossil fuels, using minimal electricity, going vegan – but all of those things are a drop in the ocean when it comes to the greater picture of the Australian carbon emitting numbers.

We’re doing so little, to the point of actually blocking the motions of other countries trying to do their bit, that we scored the lowest in the world on the Climate Change Performance Index, a scale that measures the effectiveness of governments’ climate policies. We literally got 0.0, and just so you’re aware, they don’t score it like a game of golf. Even India, China and the United States (who were second last) beat us in terms of having better climate policies. How utterly humiliating.

We all came away from the conversation with Coulton feeling like we had been brushed aside and weren’t being taken seriously because we weren’t supporting the Nationals’ position. While I had initially gone into the protest more as a way to feel a little less helpless in the face of the bushfire disaster, climate change and the fact that science keeps getting ignored by our government, Coulton‘s dismissal of our presence, let alone our concerns, as not “practical” only made me angry. I came in passive; I left pissed off.

Just before Christmas, I was interviewed by The Daily Liberal about the protest and what we felt about Mr Coulton’s response. You can read it here, but the worst bit is easily the part where he denies that the current weather events are unprecedented, because people in the 1800’s died because it was hot and they didn’t have air conditioning. (Thankfully, the journalist writing the story linked up a more accurate source to refute his claim that this kind of weather is normal, which is tragically refreshing in the modern commercial media landscape.)

What annoyed me more than anything was that he didn’t even pretend to care. Sure, he seemed to be in a rush to head somewhere given his suitcase, but he could have placated us by recommending we call his office to book an appointment to meet him (and then never followed through on getting back to us), or suggested we put something in writing for his records (so he could send back a dismissive form letter, like he did to another friend of mine before the 2019 election). Instead, we were treated with absolute contempt.

But like I say: I’ve got a bee in my bonnet now. I have friends with young kids who are going to be living on this planet after I’m gone and I want to make sure that they’re not living in a world that’s more reminiscent of the Fallout franchise than the one I grew up in.

So I’m not going quietly.

Edit: due to an increasing number of paralysis attacks, the following project has been postponed until further notice. I did, however, organise a second protest on January 10, and intend to maintain monthly gatherings until the Government makes a decent effort to stop reduce Australia’s carbon emissions and move away from fossil fuels.

Every Wednesday lunchtime from January 8th, I’m going to be hosting a busking singalong somewhere on Macquarie Street in Dubbo. I’m calling it “Wednesdays Against Warming” and there’ll be lots of protest songs, with the emphasis on a different song for the singalong every week. (Week 1 will be “No Longer There” by The Cat Empire.) There’s no Facebook group or event, though maybe I will make one sooner or later – it’s all very ad hoc because I’ve never done this before, organising some sort of resistance.

But I have to try, because we can’t just accept this as the new normal. Our lives depend on it.

The Songs That Made My 2019 A Little Bit Less Dreadful

This year has been pretty stink. Personally, I’ve spent it unemployed, depressed and on regular occasions paralysed for a reason that my doctors haven’t yet been able to determine. So yeah, the fact that 2019 is almost in the bin is something that I’m pretty damn cool with.

Another way it has been not great is one that has plagued me for a couple of years now: I’m not as good at stumbling across new music as I used to be. The reason for this is a little bit easier to work out, since the original live music scene where I am currently living is… well, “isn’t” is probably a quicker way of putting it; and since I realised that I am officially too old for triple j, I’ve not had a radio station that I connect with enough to listen to long enough to regularly be exposed to new stuff.

All that, plus the fact I’m really just struggling to care about much at all at the moment means I’m not really in a seeking-out-the-new-and-exciting kind of headspace.

These facts aside, I’ve still managed to have a few pieces of new music really stick out to me over the last 12 months, which is nice, and so I wanted to tell you about them.

However, there are a few factors that mean I have to put in a bit of effort to share them with you. I don’t really use Spotify, so I don’t have one of those fun little infographics to share, and since most of these tunes don’t have the seal of approval of Drum Central in Ultimo, I’m not going to bother putting them in as votes in the Hottest 100, and therefore won’t have the resulting auto-compiled image to share on the socials.

But since both of those things are fun and easy content – and I’ve only posted on this blog twice this year – I figured that I’ll just do it my own way.

So here you go: Noni’s Funnest Insert-Number-Here Songs That Were Released in 2019 Or At Least I Heard Them For The First Time This Year Oh Shit Now The Title’s Too Long Shit Fuck Shit (Oh Well At Least I’m Not The Fuckwit Who Decided To Go On Holiday In Hawaii Because I Forgot I Was Prime Minister And That My Country Was On Fire).

Yeah, needs some polish. I’m sure I’ll have thought of something better by the time I post this.

Either way, here’s the rundown, in no particular order.

THE SONGS

“Hamish” – Jude Perl

Let’s be painfully honest here: we’ve all known a Hamish. Some of us have even had the misfortune of having a misguided crush on or relationship with one.

Jude Perl manages to not only completely encapsulate this kind of dude, she’s also crafted a song that is just bloody brilliant.

The chorus is 100% banger (most notably the golden line, “I liked you because you were… there”), the way she captures the moment of realisation that Hamish is a total dickhead is so incredibly true to life, and the video is just perfection, with a stellar performance from Broden Kelly of Aunty Donna notoriety.

I spotted this one on the recommendation of Matt Okine on Instagram, and from the first time I heard the synth gorgeousness of that chorus, I was hooked. I regularly catch myself singing it to myself.

It’s easily my song of the year.

“Dinner & Diatribes” – Hozier

Well, where do I start when it comes to Hozier? He has been my musical crush for the last year and a bit and I’m pretty sure it’s easy to see why. Tall, handsome, offensively talented and super into social justice? Be still, my beating heart! (Don’t be surprised if he comes up again in this list.)

He released his second album, Wasteland, Baby! in April, and while the critic in me feels that it’s not quite as all-killer-no-filler as his debut, it’s still full of incredible tracks that were quickly given a place in my high rotation list. The riff in this track in particular makes it stand out from the rest, but I also feel I need to point out how incredibly horny it is. It’s kind of like “Fast Friends” by Paul Dempsey, if the Something For Kate frontman had been quietly been concealing a significant boner. The massive drum line hits right in the guts/nethers, making this the sexiest song I’ve heard all year, and it was easily one of the highlights of his set when I saw him at the Sydney Opera House back in April.

As for the video? I’m not really certain what it all means, but I know that it’s the kind of text that would make a high school English teacher faint with delight at all that juicy symbolism.

“The Piss, The Perfume” – Hayley Mary

I’ve loved Hayley Mary’s band The Jezabels for a good… holy shit, ten years? And to be honest, when I heard she was releasing solo tunes, I had no idea what to expect, since I associate her voice so strongly with the intense drum work of Nik Kaloper (who is a certified freak on the skins).

When I heard this track, I was delighted: an unashamedly Australian rock song that harks back to the alt pub rock golden age of the 90’s, with a bittersweet love story and a title that perfectly sums up the smell and feel of the venues where this sort of music gets played. It’s a little bit Pretenders, a little bit Divinyls, and 100% danceable. (I also love Mary’s Bowie meets Chrissie Amphlett look in the video more than I can say.)

“This Is On You” – Maisie Peters

I don’t know if this was relentlessly advertised to anyone else on Instagram as much as it was to me, but I’m really glad it was, because I kept going, “Oh, I really like that snippet of chorus; I’ll have to check out the song later,” and then not following through. When I finally did, I was so glad that the tune stood up to my expectations. I love the contrast of Peters’ sweet voice with the anger in the lyrics, and the little “ooo’s” in the chorus. Plus, I’ve always been a sucker for songs by women telling their ex-partners to fuck off.

“Jungle Jungle” – Rufino & The Coconuts

I’ve been a fan of Rufino & The Coconuts for absolutely yonks, and have adored Rufino’s contributions to Mikelangelo & The Black Sea Gentlemen for even longer. This particular song was easily my favourite of all their tunes when I got to see them live, and I’d often been tempted to reference it in conversations when folks post photos of themselves in pith helmets among swathes of fake vines and other appropriately themed scenes, before realising that they likely had no idea what I was talking about.

Thankfully, Rufino and the Coconuts finally put out their debut album this year, and now I can link to this tune whenever I want. (Shaka-tooka-chaka.)

“Woman” – Clare Bowditch

Clare Bowditch is the kind of woman I wish I could be. To be an exquisite musician, broadcaster and now author: ah! What a wonder! (I think I’ve always had a bit of a crush on her too, to be frank, because she’s utterly gorgeous.)

The harmonies in this are divine, and the reflections on the (cis) female experience are poignant, uplifting and tragic at the same time. It took a little while for me to warm up to it, but now it feels like the loving hug I need most days.

“Tenderness” – Brendan Maclean

This track caught me by surprise one afternoon while I was writing. (Yes, I have been doing it on occasion, but you’re not going to see anything of it for some time yet.) While I’ve had this album on my computer for a while, I haven’t really had a chance to sit down and absorb it to the level I want to, however I have had the tracks on it in my shuffle playlist, and hearing this song properly for the first time was like a punch in the gut. The ache evident in Maclean’s vocal is heartbreaking, and the closing lines feel like something from a Joni Mitchell classic. There is no other word for it than “bittersweet”, but even that doesn’t seem to be strong enough for the feeling this song elicits. It feels like a cathartic cry, full of sorrow yet somehow tinged with relief. If there was any song in the world that seems like it just needs a gentle hug, it’s this one.

“Jackboot Jump” – Hozier

The only thing wrong with this song is its lack of a big chorus, because it really is a testament to our times that should be screamed from the rooftops at protests across the world. (Yes, Australia is no exception when it comes to the rise of authoritarianism, but I’m sure I’d just be preaching to the choir here.)

Once again, Hozier hits on a killer blues-rock riff, with the stripped back arrangement almost acting as a metaphor for how basic it should be to just stand up for what’s right. There’s anger in the drums and in the growl of the guitar, and almost a disdainful sneer in Hozier’s delivery directed at those in power, while somehow simultaneously communicating a sense of pleading and a call to arms to those who are both downtrodden, or just plain have a conscience. The intertwining of ire and optimism is really intriguing to me, just as much as the fact that Hozier managed to write, record and release this in the middle of an insane world tour supporting the album he’d released only a few months before. He’s already promised more new music in 2020, which blows my mind and delights me simultaneously. I hope he can tap into whatever it takes to write the next great protest song, because right now we need to raise as many voices and we can, and music is a unique way to do that.

It also contains the lyrics of the year: “It’s always corporate infrastructure over the structure of your face.”

“Pasta” – Angie McMahon

This is a very late addition to the list, because I literally found it hours before I started writing this entry, but I connected with it immediately. The opening line – “my bedroom is a disaster” – made me sit up and take notice straight away, because it perfectly described… well, me. Everything about this song (except the bit about the dog – ours is thankfully in very good health) feels like she’s taken my life right now and put it to music. I’ve had it on repeat for the few days it’s taken for me to get this baby out, and it still holds so much power for me, even though my bedroom isn’t quite as bad as it was when I first heard it. (It’s still not great, but I’m not afraid to let people in anymore.)

THE ALBUM THAT ISN’T EVEN OUT YET

[Unnamed and Unreleased Album] – The Burley Griffin

evan.jpg

Yeah, there’s nothing to embed here because, as you may have guessed from the subtitle, this album hasn’t hit the web yet. However, it turns out there are some perks to turning thirty, and one of them is that your incredibly talented friends send you their pre-release albums for you to listen to as a birthday present.

My mate Evan Buckley did just that, and oh my god, I’m so glad he did. I nearly wept the first time I listened to this album. It’s full of bittersweet folk tunes that are just divine. If you like Elliot Smith or Ryan Adams but are looking for someone who isn’t dead or accused of sexual misconduct, then bookmark The Burley Griffin Facebook page and gird your loins for a gorgeous collection of sweet, sorrowful ballads, with a little kick of an upbeat tune as a chaser.

YEAH, THESE WEREN’T RELEASED IN 2019 BUT I ONLY JUST FOUND THEM AND THEY’RE GREAT

“Good As Hell” – Lizzo

I was embarrassingly late to the Lizzo party, likely due to my aforementioned aversion to commercial radio at the moment. But as soon as I heard this tune, I knew I needed it in my life. I thought it was a recent release, but nope. Turns out there was at least good that came out of 2016, the year when it all started to fall apart: this song.

“Hungry & Horny” – Jude Perl

And this tune from Jude Perl was the other thing the 2016 gave us that was pretty damn good. A protest song against the beauty myth, it was featured in the body positive documentary Embrace, and came with a series of amazing videos critiquing the bullshit that is the marketing industry.

And yes, I used to work in marketing. I’m still allowed to call it bullshit.

Music From Saharan Cellphones – Various

I’ve flat out forgotten how I came across this 2011 release, but goddamn, it’s such a cool concept to start with; the sweet tunes are just a bonus.

Here’s an explanation of what it’s all about from the label’s bandcamp page, but the title is pretty self-explanatory:

In much of West Africa, cellphones are are used as all purpose multimedia devices. In lieu of personal computers and high speed internet, the knockoff cellphones house portable music collections, playback songs on tinny built in speakers, and swap files in a very literal peer to peer Bluetooth wireless transfer.

There’s a real mixture of sounds in here, mostly modern pop and electro, but there are RnB influences and a touch of the traditional to keep you on your toes. It’s a fascinating look into the sounds of a culture that seems almost as alien as another can get without being from another planet. It’s an incredibly eye-opening listen.

And that’s the lot: the soundtrack to my 2019. I think I can safely say that a lot of us are starting the new decade from behind the eight ball, but I sincerely hope that the year ahead is one of significant improvement, and that we all end up in a far better place than when we started. (I mean, I’m not optimistic, but it could happen.)

So instead of Happy New Year, I’m saying Fuck Off 2019. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

The Last Barbecue

Kevin had thought about the ideal location for weeks before settling on this spot. It wasn’t far from his favourite camping spot, where he and the boys would set up for long weekends of fishing and rabbit hunting. Now he was here and it was really happening, all those memories were making him dry in the mouth. He was getting choked up. He wasn’t going to cry, though. Kevin was a man with a job to do. One last job.

He pulled out fifty cents from his pocket, pressed the starter button, and laid his barbecuing tools out on the bench next to the hot plate. While he waited for it to heat up, he opened the esky. He grabbed a beer out from beside the carcass, skinned and shining under the cling wrap. He paused and looked at it, then he ran a finger down the length of its spine. The flesh squished at his touch, just like any other meat.

Suddenly angered, he slammed the lid of the esky and went back to drinking his beer and prepping for the cook up. It might not be the right thing to do, but he was here now. He was locked in.

Skinning it had taken longer than he’d expected. There were so many little toes to get around. He knew he could have just cut them off, but if he was going to go out this way, he was committed to enjoying every morsel of flesh he could suck off those bones.

When he was satisfied that the tiny corpse was seared to his liking, he picked it up with the barbecue tongs and threw it onto his dinner plate. It nearly filled the whole thing. Perfect.

For almost a year now, he hadn’t been able eat a single mouthful of sausage, a sliver of steak, even a taste of chicken breast without breaking into hives, at best. At worst, he would go into full blown anaphylactic shock. The doctors had puzzled over it for months; meat wasn’t something you just became allergic to overnight, if at all. Kevin was a medical curiosity, poked and prodded by dickheads with stethoscopes who couldn’t tell him when he’d be able to sit down to a lamb kebab again. Finally, after analysing test after test and realising that there had been a spike in related cases on Sydney’s North Shore, they asked Kevin if he’d ever been bitten by a tick.

“Yeah,” Kevin had replied. “A couple of times. But I flicked it off and it was all good.” He’d laughed. “Don’t tell me that little bastard’s the reason for all this!”

But it was. Kevin had been struck down by mammalian meat allergy, and he would never be able to eat the flesh of another creature again.

All those beautiful Sunday roasts, Saturday night barbecues and late night Maccas runs had been ripped from his grasp, all because one little bloodsucker bit one little marsupial that couldn’t digest animal products, and then bit him, passing on one tiny protein from that furry bastard into his circulatory system, where it multiplied and took over his body, until he was allergic to that one thing integral to every red blooded bloke’s identity (after beer): meat.

Apparently there’d been a massive increase in the number of bandicoots in the area around Kevin’s place, and with it had come an explosion in the local tick population. Their favourite food? Bandicoot blood, although Kevin was apparently a close second.

After six months of nothing but rabbit food, Kevin had almost lost it. He decided he needed to eat flesh again, even if it killed him, which it probably would. He desperately longed to have something that could bleed between his teeth, something you could order on a range from blue to well done. He wanted to devour a victim of factory farming, from paddock to pan to plate.

The worst bit was watching his wife Sharon chow down on anything she wanted. You could do that when you were pregnant. While she was downing a steak and chips, Kev was stuck sucking on a kale smoothie or some other hippy bullshit. Now the baby was here, the smell of breastmilk was constantly wafting through the house, reminding Kevin of veal and lamb and all the other baby animals that were even more delicious than their parents. It was driving him mad.

He knew he had to get his revenge, even if it killed him.

Kevin took one long, final look at his last meal. He could smell the meat juices hanging in the air, making his stomach queasy while making his mouth water. He pulled out the pictures of his mum, Sharon and baby Eddie one last time, kissed each in turn, then put it down on top of the esky.

He tore into his kill. It was such a relief to taste non-plant based proteins again. Plus, it was fucking delicious.

Once he was done with his grisly feast, Kevin lay down and waited for his immune system to betray him. He thought about what the cops would think when they found his body, probably frothing at the mouth, tiny bones strewn around him, an enamel plate smeared with tomato sauce by his side. He wondered if they’d be disgusted by his crime, or if they would find his tastes understandable once they understood his circumstances. Maybe they had always wanted to do it themselves, but never had the guts to do it. Maybe they’d find it ironic that Kevin didn’t have the guts for it either.

But at least they’d know he had gone down fighting. He hadn’t gone quiet into that good night. He’d seen the cause of his own problem and taken vengeance in his own proud way.

At least they’d know he’d taken one of the bastards down with him.

Fucking bandicoots.

Downstream

The rains had come
Upstream
The twins expected thunder
But the river always
Refuses expectations
Instead
The air was still
Save the warbling of the magpies.
Cicadas, light and scorching heat,
Like the rains would never come.

Then we saw it
Slinking slowly
Like the story of the snake
The First of Us have been telling
For thousands of years.

The kids chased its head down the creek bank
As it slithered down the waterway
And I beamed in wonder
At this long withheld blessing.

I saw the twinkle of dew in Mum’s eye.

I took her hand,
And tried to forget all the days
The water had been too late for.

I whispered to her,
Maybe he had to go
Because he knew they wouldn’t listen
Unless he asked in person.

Her grip became a vice
But there was no sound
Despite the streams staining her cheeks.

So that’s how we stayed,
Hand clasped in hand,
As the kids pointed and laughed and raced
The rainbow serpent around the riverbend,
Downstream.

 

*****

This poem won first place in the Open Own Composition section at the 2019 Dubbo Eisteddfod. You can find the adjudicator’s notes on my Instagram.