This piece originally appeared in the inaugural issue of Tincture Journal :)
"Physicists tell us that the solidity of matter is an illusion. Even seemingly solid matter, including your physical body, is nearly 100 percent empty space – so vast are the distances between the atoms compared to their size. What is more, even inside every atom there is mostly empty space. What is left is more like a vibrational frequency than particles of solid matter, more like a musical note." – Eckhardt Tolle
In 1976, I was five. The Australian music institution Countdown had been running for two years every Sunday night at 6pm on the ABC. It was hosted by a passionate Molly Meldrum, with his enthusiastic recommendations to “do yourself a favour” and get onto the latest Supernaut or David Bowie offering. Once a fortnight we would visit Grandma and Grandpa’s place, and us kids would sit in front of the telly and indulge in a 70’s feast of rotating disco balls and men in satin shirts open to their waists.
In stark contrast to the glitter that was fluffing up much of that year, AC/DC released “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap)”. It’s a song about a hitman offering his services to a variety of people who could use his help – a teenage girl being forced to sleep with her high school principal, someone whose boyfriend is double dealin’ with her best friend, and a browbeaten bloke whose nagging wife is driving him nuts. A bargain-priced solution could be arranged using several different methods – concrete shoes, cyanide, and TNT amongst them.
Not for me. I was waking in fright in my bed at night and lying there crying, “Mummmmy, Mummmmy,” softly, softly, so no one else would hear except her, embarrassed already for my need, until she came and climbed into bed with me. Then, the depths of the dark night retreated, along with the monsters that peeped through the chink in the blind. I didn’t know anything about hitmen. For me, that song was about two characters – Dirty Deeds and the Dunder Cheep. Dirty Deeds looked something like Mario or Luigi from Mario Brothers. But he wasn’t the important one. He was only the sidekick to the real star of the show, the Dunder Cheep, who was a giant baby chicken.
That was the song I loved, and the memory of that causes a jolt of pure, unadulterated, bittersweet what-it-felt-to-be-fiveness to flood over me. The same way it feels when you hear again a song you once loved but have completely forgotten. When I was 25 I recorded Counting Crows’ “Recovering the Satellites” from my brother’s vinyl LP onto cassette. If I hadn’t lived through the technological changes of the past 30 years I would find it hard to believe that cassette recording occurred less than 20 years ago; I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t been there myself. Somewhere in-between then and the advent of CDs I lost that cassette, and forgot all about that album.
Twelve years later I bought that Counting Crows album again, one of a bulk lot of someone’s CDs they were getting rid of on eBay in favour of digitising their collection. Listening to those songs for the first time in 12 years, all of the lyrics of Angel of the Silences were coming back to me a split second before Adam Duritz wailed them out of the speakers and I loved that album twice as much as I had before, it grown more precious from the forgetting.
~ * ~
Last year I watched Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe twice. As quickly as he fed the second law of thermodynamics and string theory into my wondering and awe-inspired brain, just as quickly it flooded out again. I don’t think I will ever be able to explain physics; but I feel like maybe I could dance it. If no one was watching.
As is the irritating way of such things, when I was in high school I couldn’t have given a shit about science. I was more interested in being in love with unattainable people. In 1985 I cried myself to sleep more nights than I can remember yearning for a Brian Mannix I could never have. Of course, the fact that I could never have him provided the safety net to pour out all of my grief, my angst, my yearning into my pillow every night. If I could have had him, I would not have known what to do with him.
I traversed the suburbs of Melbourne following after Uncanny X-Men. I went underage to over-18s gigs; I saw them at the Nunawading Skate Ranch, at the Myer Music Bowl, at Festival Hall, where I once had to be taken, hysterical, out to the St John’s Ambulance, so overcome was I for my beloved. My cousin Andrea and I caught the train to Oak Park and walked the streets to the house where Brian still lived with his parents. “Brian is in Adelaide,” a sign said in the front window. I took leaves from his tree and some molting fur from his dog, for keepsakes.
The obsession with the lead singer aside, there was something about early Uncanny X-Men music that appealed to me. They wrote surfing parodies that made allusions to vibrators. They were politically incorrect. Before they were a squealy teenie band they were an irreverent pub band, a bunch of young guys from Melbourne. Before Brian was in the X-Men he worked in a tap factory. That was amazing to me. They were just normal blokes. And they were making music.
I was a suburban girl through and through and my musical tastes reflected that. I had fear running through my veins. There were so many bands going around then that would appeal so much more to me now – The Pixies, The Smiths, Cocteau Twins – that I had never heard of, or who flew over or under my radar. My brother was a relentless player of The Cure, but it was like they vibrated on a level too scary for me to contemplate at that time. The Sex Pistols were another story, but then they were safe by virtue of their distance in a way that, say, Nick Cave was not. That sort of music was too dark; far too close to my own barely understood feelings to contemplate.
I was now a teenager, and life had taken me light years away from the buffer of the innocence that had fostered the Dunder Cheep. I was screaming for a new story, to know where I fit into the new world. But there were no initiation rites, apart from the clumsy alcoholic ones we invented ourselves, and no songlines to map out the concrete earth I was living on.
~ * ~
I was that most irritating of high school students – the smart girl throwing away her education. I would go to school having not done my homework and give lip to my teachers, only to go to the library after school and borrow great swathes of books. I felt traumatised and tiny on the inside; the outside was all fear masked as cool rebellion, mistrust and sneering contempt. Some of that contempt was well-founded, when I consider the way science and history were presented to us. My high school had the stupendous ability to juice subjects and only hand us the skin. The facts without the narrative.
Teenagers are blind to plenty of things. On the other hand, some things are more 20/20 then than they’ll ever be again: why do adults do the things they do – or don’t do the things that they should? Why is beauty so lacking, and why does everything feel so dense and stultifying and boring? Is this really the best we can do? I hadn’t come across Rousseau at 15, but his famous dictum that “Man [sic] is born free, but he is everywhere in chains” would have resonated. Not that I would have been able to articulate it.
Perhaps I would have been better off trying to dance my angst, instead. But I couldn’t dance without fiery self-consciousness. Not like the other girls I would go to the Bluelight disco with, and join them to dance in a circle with our handbags in the middle. For some it was fun, but dancing was excruciating for me. I didn’t even know I secretly yearned to do it – and other things like drama and music. Those things were for people who weren’t genetic mutations. I wasn’t free to dance; my feet felt frozen to the floor.
When a river gets a blockage upstream, everything congeals, and what is meant to flow becomes stagnant.
~ * ~
Every recess and lunch break of my high school years I sat with a big group of friends up the back of the oval, as far away from the school buildings as possible, and smoked cigarettes. Generally Peter Jackson Super Mild. Smoking was banned at our school. Out of all of my friends, I was the only one ever to be caught and to suffer the indignity of picking up rubbish with Mr Walsh, the grumpy janitor, after school. It didn’t stop me smoking, though. When I first began the habit I’d later struggle to quit, a packet of Alpine Lights was $1.78. My friend Karen and I would go halvies in a packet, go to the park halfway up her street and sit on the swings and the seesaw and smoke one cigarette after another.
The only memory that survives almost 30 years after the interminably boring hours that made up my science education (apart from the time we had to cut up a squirting cow’s eye) was the luminous day a volunteer was required. They were to take a long metal stick and move it through a metal contraption while touching the sides as little as possible. Then they were to go outside and smoke a cigarette and then redo the test to measure the effects nicotine had on the body.
I was deliriously happy to be that volunteer. It felt delicious to lawfully practise my self-destructive habit. It felt like it did when I would read a book and come upon a word or phrase I hadn’t met before. One of those good phrases, where the concept suddenly puffs out in front of you like a giant airbag that gives you not only a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that explains Why Things Are, but a buffer space between you and the world, in the same way that cigarettes create a smokescreen. With a new phrase or concept I could see a new horizon, sometimes an entire city that I could not see before. This was the way I felt standing outside having a fag, under authorisation from a teacher to do so. I wished for the principal and the janitor to come past and see me. Unfortunately, as is the way of these things, nobody did.
~ * ~
Several years ago someone on the radio was talking about the evolutionary history of octopusses. He kept referring to the evolutionary process as if it was something outside of the octopus, something imposed upon it. “Evolution has done X, Y and Z”, he’d say.
It was probably simply a shorthanded way for him to convey what he wanted to say, but the way he said it hit a nerve. Did the octopus have no say in its own unfolding – the world stomping down on its tentacles with its boots like late Western capitalism on the earth, insisting on it being this way? This version of evolution felt like simply another version of the dualistic god who lived far away in the skies, leaving his creation to rot. I prefer to think of the evolutionary dance of a million possible variations not only coming into the octopus, but also coming out of it, the way it came out of the stars, out of the Big Bang. Not like some boring, mechanical one-way sort of thing, but as Life dancing with itself. A myriad of possibilities that the octopus could have become, but now that it’s unfolded the way it has, it seems so solid that we can’t readily believe it could have turned out any other way than it did.
Of course, the octopus is a product of its environment. Its environmental homes over millions of years have shaped the way it has turned out. No octopus is an island, after all, any more than any one of us are.
Geez. Everything is so vulnerable; it’s a wonder anything is here at all.
And in a way it isn’t. At one level, the octopus is more not here than it is here. But yet it is, as solid as any other creature. This thought is somehow comforting to me, like a cup of warm Milo at 2 am.
I wonder – if the best science teacher in the world had been able to convey to me the poetry of string theory, would I have had the ears to hear it back then? I fielded a don’t-give-a-shit exterior, but I was desperate for someone to tell me a story, that there was a perfectly full void running through it all like a golden thread, and that it ran through me, too. This was the story that I was looking for. I still am. A story that includes everything. A space that opens up wonder and beauty and where people belong rihgt in the centre of it.
That kind of space would surely, given a couple of millennia, start unfreezing stuck feet. Because not only are we made of barely nothing. We are also, after all, made of stars.