I am lying on my bed upstairs in my terrace on the phone to a dear friend. I’m reading her the last paragraphs of a chapter called ‘On Darkness’ in Helen Garner’s (bloody brilliant) book ‘All That I See’…
There is no point roaming around looking for comfort, or so I have found. Comfort is like grace. You can’t earn it, or deserve it. You have to thrash on, bearing things as best you can, and hold yourself receptive for the moments when it comes to you of its own accord.
Towards the end of the second Farquharson trial, during breaks in the proceedings when the court was cleared, I used to walk up and down the great bare Victorian corridors of the old Supreme Court, stretching my legs, trying to get the blood moving.
One day I heard what sounded like music, very faint and far away. I thought I was hallucinating, and kept walking. But every time I passed the entrance to a certain west-running hallway, the same thing would happen: fragile drifts of notes and slow arpeggios, as if a ghost in a curtain-muffled room were playing a piano. I was too embarrassed to ask if anyone else had heard it; was I starting to crack up? But one day when there was no one else around I went in search of it. I found that an intersection of two corridors had been roofed in glass or Perspex. Two benches had been placed against a wall, and from a tiny speaker, fixed high in a corner, came showering these delicious droplets of sound. It was a resting place that some nameless benefactor had created, for people who thought they couldn’t go on.
One afternoon in a different hallway a lady came out of an unmarked office carrying a flat dish. She saw me sitting waiting in the corridor on my own, and approached, holding the plate out in front of her. ‘Hello. We’ve just had a little party and we’ve got some cakes left over. Would you like a lamington?’
These random incidents seem so strange to me now, such unexpected moments of blessing, that I wonder if I dreamt them. Dreams do come: the unconscious works in us and for us, unceasing, with its saving complexity and its deep knowingness.
Sometimes it seems to me that, in the end, the only thing people have got going for them is imagination. At times of great darkness, everything around us becomes symbolic, poetic, archetypal. Perhaps this is what dreaming, and art, are for.
Maybe love is the same as grace or comfort, I say. Maybe you can’t earn it or grasp at it or bloody manifest it, you just have to be “receptive for the moments when it comes to you of its own accord.”
Some days later I am sitting under a tree on the median strip out the front of my house. A few trees up my housemate is stretched out in the afternoon sun reading a book. Sometimes people picnic out here. Sometimes groups of people sit around on milkcrates and drink beer out here, or spread out blankets with glasses of wine and cheeseboards. People walk their dogs. I like city neighbourhoods. I like that cities have had to put space aside for nature and for people to gather in. The nature is manicured sure, but beautifully so. It’s crowded sure, but communally so. Evenings in the public gardens are full of groups of people gathering under trees.
But it’s afternoon on the median strip. I’m sitting under a palm tree talking to an old friend on the phone and pulling up bits of grass with my fingers and mulling over why I’m feeling flat.
Maybe it’s because I’ve put all my eggs in the dating basket. Maybe I need to diversify my investments there to make it less of an emotional roller-coaster. Maybe it’s just that the excited joy of re-joining the dating world in December has now lost it’s initial shine – it’s just a thing I do now. It might be a thing I do for a bit longer than I wanted to. Maybe I just need to get my head around the fact that just because I’ve moved to a city and changed careers and made the big decisions and made the bold moves, doesn’t mean it’s all gunna fall into place for me quickly. Doesn’t mean it’s gunna fall into place at all really – it’s probably statistically more likely to find love here than out bush but it’s still statistically about half and half y’know? I mean, I could be continuously single for another year, two years, another decade. I need to get back to a place where I’m ok with that.
A week later I’m sitting at Carlton Readings, one of the best bookshops in town. I’m 30 minutes early for a talk entitled ‘The Meaning Of Life’ by Patrick Stokes, philosopher and writer, and Zan Boag, editor of the New Philosopher. I turn to the cute dork behind me and make some comment about the lack of chairs and isn’t it lucky we got here early. He blushes and mumbles a response to my question about what brought him here. People tell you to just do the things you’re interested in and you’ll meet like-minded people there. But it’s more complex than that – you’ve gotta continuously go to the same places or the same events, build up acquaintanceships slowly over time whilst gently prodding for their relationship status and testing compatibility. Same thing with the babe who worked at the CERES nursery or the babe at the Buddhist temple I used to meditate in.
My friend arrives and the talk begins. They talk about the unexamined life, about flourishing, about identity just arising from the thing you spend the most time doing. About there not being any one thing that gives a life purpose, not work, family or art or community, just our own proactive belief that that this one thing (be it work or family or whatever specific thing it happens to be for us) is the purpose, this is what ultimately makes it ok and worthwhile, this “answers to the enormity of my existence.” About death giving meaning to life by adding urgency – that each moment could be your last, or it could be the first in a very long life.
The bit that gets me is this term ‘narrativism,’ which is kinda about choice, agency and control. Does everybody have a story and that story gives us meaning? Or is life just one damned thing after another and we just give it meaning in the telling of it? Do we own our own stories, can we control them? Or is everything pre-determined by whatever it is that you believe in – scientific determinism, random coincidence, serendipity, fate, destiny, the universe, karma, God?
Are we the authors of our own stories? No, says Stokes. “We are at best co-authors.”
Afterwards my friend and I eat ridiculously good Italian food at Tiamo’s bistro.
If all I am is a co-author, then I can chill the fuck out a bit about the whole dating thing. I’m not going to completely drop the ball and be a passenger and leave it up to the universe, but I can’t be solely responsible or capable of controlling every element of my life either. So all I can do is all I can do. I can do everything I possibly can, I can make things happen, but in the end, that may not be enough – it’s out of my hands. All I choose is how I respond – with curiosity, with trust, with hope. That isn’t giving up. I can still be open to whatever else the universe decides to throw my way. I can be receptive to when serendipitous shit is happening.
Before we left the talk the editor of the magazine invited us to write down what we thought the meaning of life was. The best answer would win a copy of the first ever edition of the New Philosopher. I wrote:
The meaning of life is to each day be a slightly less shit human being than the day before.
This was read out to the audience and selected as the winner. (I am now doubly an award-winning author!) (Also – I mean, come on, I won at the meaning of fucking life!) The above sentence is genuinely my philosophy. I want to see life as a moral adventure story, where we just stumble towards being our best selves, along the way actively struggling against the worst of our natures. If that doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, it’s like old mate Fairlie said, if we all know that we’re all individually at war with ourselves, we can choose to “go to war like warriors do, with zest, valour and even mirth.”
If this has all been a bit too philosophical for you, let me leave you with some seriously serendipitous shit. After the philosophy talk, a total babe with a chequered shirt and a leather satchel gave me his business card. He asked if I’d consider selling it to him so that his library would be complete. After I’d finished reading it of course. I said I would. I might sell it to him for a cup of tea and a philosophical yarn.
I still have that business card in my wallet.
Thanks for bearing with that lengthy and rather narrative-less piece. These are things I’ve been thinking about. I’d love to know what you think. Let’s get philosophical! Let’s have the deep chats we always wish we could have on dates but get stuck in small talk! You can comment below anonymously, send me a reply if you’re an email subscriber, or hit me up on the old Facebook.
Meantime, a lot of these ideas were borrowed from better thinkers, so you can read more of their thoughts here if you’d like:
- Helen Garner’s full essay ‘On Darkness‘ as it appeared in The Monthly
- Patrick Stokes’ piece ‘Are you just a story?‘ about narrativism as it appeared in the New Philosopher (His ‘A life worth living‘ aint bad either) (also if you like thinking and stories y’all should try the New Philosopher’s sister magazine ‘Womankind‘)
- The Fairlie quote is from David Brooks’ ‘The Road to Character‘, which kinda changed my life a little. I bang on about it a lot. It’s not a self help book. It’s a book of stories about real people who’ve been summoned by life rather than tried to create their lives, instead of looking inside themselves for answers, have looked outside and sussed out what life was calling them to do. Some of the ideas are summed up in his article ‘The Moral Bucket List.’ I know he has some questionably conservative ideas about other things but I stand by these specific ones. Can also recommend writing your own eulogy. Srsly.
I’ve had a few interesting dates – a night at the museum and whisky with an Argentinean cowboy – so I’ll update y’all on those soon. Nothing worthy of high-fiving the universe but the dates themselves were enjoyable. This evening I’m off to a pub date with a young Happn bloke and then going to a gig with a single gal pal, because if neither of us are gunna get laid tonight, we might as well spend time with people who will at least ask us questions in bloody conversation y’know?