Micrograms

What dose are you taking? the doctor asks me.

A hundred… I can never remember what the ‘mg’, or whatever it is, stands for, I say.

Micrograms, she says, and writes it on the pathology order form.

It seems ridiculous that I am so reliant on such a small measure.

Later, in the pathology collection room, the nurse sits next to me typing the details from the form into the computer. She has her mobile phone on the desk in front of her, playing Australian coverage of the US election.

I can’t believe it, she says. I lived in New York for twenty-seven years, and this just makes me so sad.

I think of my recent trip to the US, in the midst of the election campaign, and of the people I met there, the culture I barely glimpsed. I am sad too.

Is it milligrams or micrograms? she asks me.

What the doctor has written on the form is unclear.

Micrograms, I say.

Then she tightens the strap around my upper arm and pushes the tip of the needle through my skin and into a vein. The veins on my right arm are always bigger and easier to access. The needle burns. I watch the blood from my body fill the body of the syringe. Dark, coppery red. A result of the reaction between iron and oxygen inside the dark and mysterious parts of my body. Like rust.


Are you reading anything good at the moment? she asks me.

I laugh. Completely coincidentally, I’m reading a book called ‘Micrograms’.

She laughs too. I tell her it’s a book about small things. Small things that matter. About connections between things.

Fascinating, she says, I’m really interested in finding connections between things. I’m studying tarot cards at the moment.

When she pulls the needle out of my arm, the very end of it catches the tiny thin edge of my skin. I feel the microscopic tear in my skin as a stinging sensation. Two tiny spots of my blood drop, one onto my arm and one onto the arm of the chair. I fight the urge to apologise and immediately wipe them up. Instead I watch them sit there, shining and wet and warm. 

She syringes my blood into a vial. I have never seen it done this way before. Usually the vial is attached to syringe and the blood is collected directly. I do not ask her why she has done it differently, or why she is not concerned about my spilled blood.

The drops of my blood darken, thicken a little, against the outside air, reacting to the invisible oxygen around us.

Tarot cards are supposed to be all about seeing connections you might not otherwise, she says.

She rubs an alcohol swab over my arm, slowly back and forth across the pin prick in the crook of my elbow, and then, finally, down towards the outside of my elbow to wipe up the spilled blood on my arm. Last, almost as an afterthought, she swipes the swab over the drop of my blood on the furniture.

A cotton wool ball taped across the puncture wound, she sends me back out into the world with my tender elbow crook. I can feel the sticky tape pulling on the hairs on my arm, the memory of the burn of the needle running down along the veins and into my right hand.

The radio coverage of the election is the last thing I hear as she shuts the door behind me.

Hedgerows

He is speaking about his family history and its ties to a part of Wales I have spent some time. The presentation is beautiful, and everyone in the room is spellbound by his descriptions of the objects from his family’s history and the deeply sad story they tell.

He describes walking recently down the road where his great grandfather had been found many many years ago, and marvelling at the wildness of the hedgerows, somehow chaotic and contained at the same time. I know these hedgerows. I have gazed at them up close in the same way this man I do not know describes doing. 

He shows a picture of the hedgerows, and something odd happens to my heart. It wobbles a little, shaken by something like nostalgia, like grief, like the kind of sadness one feels for a friend going through a difficult time, except that the sadness is for a past version of myself. 

When I wandered along those hedgerows it was summer. I wore gumboots and sometimes a rain jacket. 

Sometimes I wandered as part of a little troupe, and we would sing each other silly songs, and pluck sticky weed, a plant I know as cleavers, from the hedgerow and stick it to one another. On these ventures I learned to recognise stinging nettle, and the other plants in the chaos of the hedgerow that would help ease the pain of a too-close encounter with the nettle. On one occasion, one of my wandering companions pointed out a delicate and tiny orchid, and told us all she knew about the plant.

Other times I wandered just with one other, often at dusk, my favourite time of day, and she and I would talk about the things that were making us sad, the answers we were trying to find in our lives. We would stop to look at the sun setting, and at cows in the fields. I’m not sure we found the answers, but I think what we grew between us on those evening walks along the hedgerows was some kind of hope—the kind of hope that a growing friendship feeds.

In Wales I also walked up a mountain, explored castles, dug potatoes, checked fields for molehills. I removed ivy from trees—an activity involving considerably more effort than that short phrase implies, with small axes and other tools, scrabbling through undergrowth and small branches, and as much brute strength as I could muster—and built and burned a bonfire. Of course, when I say “I” there, I really mean “we”.

Listening to this man’s presentation, a year after my own introduction to the hedgerows, I’m realise I’m finally beginning to understand the kind of room my heart made for the country I walked through then, and the people I walked with. I’m also seeing the depth of the fog that surrounded me at that time, and that perhaps it was a necessary buffer. As that fog has lifted, slowly, a gratitude for that time, those people, and that place has settled in its place. 

Later, at the pub, this man and I talk very briefly about our different connections to the place in his presentation. He tells me he’s spent very little time there himself, but its presence has haunted his family in the generations that came after his great grandfather’s death. I tell him a little about my time there, and I’m struck by the way this place is associated with sadness in each of our stories, and with a shift in the direction those stories. 

For him, this shift happened before he was born, and his exploration of it is in part an attempt to understand how it’s contributed to where he finds himself now. For me, this shift is something much more recent in my past, and I have a feeling that it will still be quite some time before I can see the impact it’s had on the wandering of my life. 

All I know so far is that I think of the hedgerows, and those wanderings along them, often. They are vivid in my memory—the voices of my wandering companions, the soft quality of the light, the quiet of the countryside, the texture of the different plants, and the scent of them. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about how things leave traces on us, and how those traces are not always obvious. Even when they’re felt, we can’t always understand what they really mean, or will mean. I may spend the rest of my life not fully understanding the traces left by the time I spent in Wales. And maybe this is what that man’s presentation showed me—that the traces of a place and things that happen in a place may be felt generations later, and perhaps still not understood.

Threads and spaces between have been concepts at the forefront of my mind for some time now. In my own talk at the conference where the man spoke about the Welsh hedgerows and his family, I spoke about sound as a medium that creates what sound theorist Brandon LaBelle calls ‘relational space’. This is an important argument for my thesis—and is both figuratively and literally true—but I also think that, at least figuratively, the same might be said for any of the senses. They are an opportunity to perceive relational spaces and to notice the threads that run through them. 

I’m still not quite there in trying to understand my time in Wales and what it’s meant for me. The threads are still loose here. But maybe that’s an interesting point at which to pause, and just to notice the slack in the weave. 

I think of my mother’s knitting. The way she weaves together threads of yarn over many hours, in stages, on and off, to make a garment; the way she unravels parts or all of that garment if the finished piece doesn’t quite work, and starts again. 

The things she makes are always beautiful, for all that weaving and unravelling and re-weaving. Maybe I’m still unravelling Wales, so I can begin weaving again.

Sunflowers 

Excuse me, I say, is this your garden?

It is the end of the week. I’m extremely tired and have been for a long walk. On my way home, I have caught a woman coming out of a house with a wonderful garden behind the front fence and another on the verge, with sunflowers just starting to bloom. It is one of my favourite parts of this particular regular walking route. 

Well, I planted it, yes, she says. She hesitates slightly. 

I tell her how much I love it, how I admire it every time I walk past. 

She relaxes. She is older than I am by maybe fifteen years. Her hair is short, neat, and dark—quite the opposite of mine: long, unruly, fair. Her face is friendly; eyes, bright. She smiles easily. She tells me about the garden’s history, the difficulties with the local council, the concerns of some of her neighbours. But also about her idea that a garden in this spot could be a small source of joy for passersby. 

Do you garden? she asks me. 

I do, I tell her, and bemoan the terrible soil in my front garden, which seems to want to grow almost nothing, no matter how much garden waste and compost and spent coffee grounds and green manure and mulch I throw at it. Unlike the back garden, which is overgrown, wild, and full of food. The front garden is a source of ongoing, quiet frustration for me; something almost always at the back of my mind, so that every now and then a possible solution pops into my head. 

Have you tried sunflowers? she asks me, they seem to grow anywhere and everywhere, even in terrible soil. 

I haven’t tried sunflowers. 

She tells me about the garden behind her front fence, fairly well established now, that only two years ago would grow almost nothing because of low soil quality. But sunflowers grew just fine. 

I could give you some seeds, she says, I’m sure I’ve got some lying around. 

I think I probably I have some sunflower seeds lying around somewhere at home, so I don’t take her up on the offer this time. But we exchange names, and chat about work and households and takeaway dinners on a Friday night. I am struck for about the seven hundredth time since I began gardening just how unlikely it is that I would have met this complete stranger were it not for a garden and a curiosity in me that lends itself to friendliness—a trait that is no doubt amplified by the practice of gardening itself, where curiosity about a plant, a seed, the soil, becomes paying friendly attention: watching, listening. 

We talk about succulents. About how many of the succulents in her verge garden have been grown from cuttings. I tell her about the giant jade plant on my parents’ front verandah, grown from a cutting given to my mum by an old housemate and dear friend of mine at the time we lived together. 

She tells me to come and knock on her door if I realise I do need sunflower seeds. 

I wander home thinking about cities and culture and agriculture and tending to plants; about how many conversations I have had with complete strangers because of a garden; and how the link between cities, culture, agriculture and sociability is so strong and so old that it’s almost invisible. Until someone sows some sunflower seeds on their front verge. 

Small floods

  There are words enough, at last.

I have come to think of this last year, 2015, as the year I lost to grief. 

Grief appeared at strange moments. Unexpected, it bubbled up from somewhere inside and filled me up. Sometimes it leaked, and wet my eyelashes, matting them together in shiny triangles at the edges of my eyes. Sometimes it seethed then raged, like the ocean withdrawing from the shore and the tidal wave that follows. There were days when the grief burned my cheeks with its saltiness. 

This grief is old. It’s been waiting a decade or more for me to give it space. In that time, it’s trickled into spaces all through my body, looking for somewhere it can rest, leaving its mark along the way, like flood marks on a wall. It hasn’t found a home, in all that time. Nowhere to settle, just restlessness and the scars of constant movement.

When I started giving it space, I began dreaming more than I had in years. About loss, about continuing despite loss. Maybe because of it. Starting again, not from scratch, but from where I am. Something we all need to do.

The grief came to rest in my chest; the space that air from outside creates and then deflates inside my lungs. And I wonder now if this is where it wanted me to allow it to go, all this time, so I could breathe it out, let it go. Have I kept it trapped all these years, thinking all the while that it was me who was the prisoner?

Words travel on the exhale when a person speaks, but for much of last year this old grief of mine was only air and water, draughts and leaks. 

Sounds, movement, silence. 

The only words I could use to explain it were nebulous, vague. 

Shapeless. Air and water. 

Mine alone to hold and then release back into the world, to be unmade and remade, the way we all are; to become something else.

It is a very strange and somewhat distressing state of affairs to be someone who has called themselves a writer and to find that there are no words, or that there are only words that make no sense to anyone else, and to feel that you cannot really understand the words other people are using. 

The year I lost to grief wasn’t completely lost, of course. I travelled, I worked, I loved. I made changes. I made new connections with people, more fully realised the depth of many old ones. I found that these people carried for me when I couldn’t a faith in me that I would find with time. I found, too, an immense gratitude, which I’m not sure there will ever be words enough to express, for this faith in me—especially because some of that faith came from people who didn’t have much beyond a hunch to go on. 

These are words enough now for the grief though. 

There is space where the grief once flooded everything else out. Space for joy and kindness and courage and playfulness. Space for all the things I thought I’d lost, but that had, in fact, just been learning how to swim. 

Moving through places

  It is the walking I remember most clearly.

It is the walking, and the muscle memory of it, the feeling of my feet inside my shoes and the ground underneath them, that allows me to remember other things about the places that—quite literally, it seems—etch themselves into me. I’m not sure I could come to love a place if I didn’t move through it. 

In Paris I wore familiar sandals that collected dust and dirt, as did my feet. It was hot. My skin was always warm and slightly dusty. I was calm in Paris, alone. Comfortable in my dusty warm skin. I walked for hours in that city. In crowded places and quiet ones. I was isolated by my very minimal French, but often welcomed with a cheery ‘Bonjour’ or ‘Bonsoir’. I listened to the language like one might listen to music. 

I bought very little in Paris, other than food and a couple of small gifts. I had only a small backpack with me. I was blissfully free of luggage; similarly, baggage. 

I walked through cemeteries, galleries, streets. Barely speaking, mostly listening, often lost. 

In Edinburgh, I wore lace up shoes I’d bought in Ireland. Comfortable but still stiff while I wore them in. They made a pleasant click on the wide footpaths of the New Town, and held steady on the cobblestones of the Old Town. It was cold enough for a jacket and scarf in Edinburgh, though it was the beginning of summer. 

I was sad in Edinburgh, but somehow simultaneously so pleased to be there. I fell in love with the architecture in that city—with a beauty that seemed to embrace the idea of dark edges. It helped me to embrace my own shadowy outlines, to allow the sadness just to be. 

In the Scottish National Gallery I sat near a gallery tour group while the leader talked about a sculpture that looked from one angle like it was grimacing; from another, laughing. When the tour group moved on, I looked at the sculpture with a gallery security guard and another patron. I was the only one of the three of us who was tall enough to see the sculpture clearly from both angles. Only I could see the happy face too. 

In the New Town I found a cafe down some stairs, below street level. It had black and white checkered floor tiles. I sat in the window with a book, not really reading, and instead looking up at the street. The slightly acidic, but also sweet smell of coffee, and the melody of Scottish accents. 

I walked through galleries here, too, and castles and museums, and up a hill where I could look out over the city. I walked through my sadness, through my shadows. My feet were sore in Edinburgh, rather than dusty. My hair was wild, blown about by the wind. 

It is the walking that helps me remember these places now, and myself in them. The residual feeling of one step after another, the sense of moving slowly through space. It is the walking that has imprinted in my mind some kind of map of these cities: incomplete, hazy, highly individual, perhaps inherently unshareable, but undoubtedly precious. 

Coming home

An old upright piano sits in the park, near the public toilets. It is wooden, painted white, and a bit dishevelled. I sit at it and open the lid. The keys are discoloured, some of them chipped. 

I play. 

I play a little piece I’ve made up over many years. I don’t even remember when I started playing it. Maybe in high school. It’s very simple. Based on a single chord in the left hand, and the notes of that scale in the right hand. It’s different each time I play it, and that’s the point. This is the piece I play when I really just want to play. This kind of playing, where I’m just making it up as I go along, takes me to some other place. The whole of me becomes this music, this play. 

It is a relief to become something else for a time, and a joy. 

I’m in Sydney Park. A place I must have walked a thousand times when I lived nearby some years ago. I’d been wandering around the park before I found the piano. Noticing what had changed, noticing what was the same. 

I haven’t lived near here now for years. I’ve lived in another state for nearly three years. I’m visiting Sydney with a man—a little adventure we’re having together. He’s somewhere else in the park now, writing. Later we will walk down King Street and Enmore Road, my arm looped through his, and we will talk about how important this part of Sydney—the park, Newtown, the Inner West—is to me, to my story. To who I am and who I’m becoming. We’ll talk about what home is, what coming home means—a conversation we’ve been having on and off for quite some time. 

By the time I find myself sitting at a piano in Sydney Park, I’ve been home from my travels overseas for a few weeks. I’ve been confused and a bit lost for most of that time. More than a week of the fog of jet lag, not being sure where I was in time, wanting to eat at strange hours, sleep when I should be awake. Actually, just wanting to eat and sleep pretty much all the time. 

But the confusion is more than just jet lag. 

Home is strange to me. That feeling when you get back from being away, where the house looks different in some way you can’t put your finger on, that has lingered.

It’s something to do with time, and something to do with change. Time has passed for me and time has passed for my home, and things have changed, but it’s happened separately. I have an ongoing feeling of needing to catch up, and of needing to catch others up, but not having the words with which to do that. 

The beginning of this year was incredibly difficult for me, in ways I’m not ready to talk about publicly. My mental health took a pretty heavy beating. I’m okay, mostly, but I’m changed. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’m changing. 

The overseas travel was difficult for me. I was fragile when I left Australia, and frightened. 

The trip helped me find myself, in the way that travel often does. I found my courage again, my capacity to make decisions and deal with uncertainty and unfamiliarity. But it also helped me lose myself. Things that were really important to me no longer seem quite so vital. I’ve changed my mind about some things I thought were more solid. A lot of this is good, of course, but there’s a certain quiet kind of grief involved in letting go of parts of oneself. Saying goodbye. 

And so coming home is strange. I’ve come face to face with an old version of myself, a person I sort of still am but also am not. It will take me some time to make something of the threads between these different versions of myself. 

In Sydney Park at the piano, I play as people and their dogs walk past. I’m not much of a fan of performing; but I’m not feeling self-conscious about playing in front of people like this, which is new for me. 

Some of the piano keys don’t work, and there are pauses in the piece where I don’t intend there to be. Many of the keys are slightly off in their tuning. The sustaining pedal doesn’t work. The piece I play sounds both the same and different to any other time I’ve ever played it, on this different piano. The keys feel different under my fingertips, the piano stool different under my sit bones. 

The sameness, though, is me. The threads of me that link all these different selves. The memory that’s in my fingers as they play, in my body as it sways with the rhythm of the piece. The part of me that was always at home.

Alone in Paris

  It is 37 degrees in Paris, and I decide I want to get off the stuffy Metro a few stops early to look at something. I don’t plan to walk the rest of the way to the museum I’m hoping to end up at eventually, but I get distracted by a garden, and then I’m walking. And walking, and walking. 

For some reason, on very hot days I almost always find myself outside, walking for a lot longer than is probably advisable. 

My feet are dusty and sore, my cheeks are red, and my hairline is sweaty. I am dishevelled. I sip the water in my bottle. It’s warm. My steps are slow and steady. I chase shade and rest often. I think about the muscles and bones in my feet, and the trajectory of weight through them as I walk, and about how I’m probably getting sunburnt. I gaze at buildings and the river and the other people walking and shimmering in the heat. 

When I reach the museum, what I wanted to see is closed. But I have walked all this way in the heat, so I pay to see something else. And I walk more. Only this time it is cool. In the bathroom I splash water on the back of my neck, but there is nothing to be done about the dusty feet.

The art makes me think and feel. Things I don’t have words for. Things I don’t have to find words for because I am alone. 

One year when I lived in Sydney, I had a theatre subscription, and most times I went alone. I would walk home from the plays in the dark, thoughts and feelings rattling around in my head, changing me ever so subtly. That I went alone and walked home alone felt precious to me. Solitary in the same way as reading a novel. 

The walking, the museums, the river, the dusty feet, being in Paris alone feels like this to me. 

By the river another hot day I buy an ice cream. Even though I eat it within five minutes of receiving it, it still melts all over me. My hands, my legs, then my face when I touch it with my hands. I get what I think is most of it off, then realise I don’t really care. 

I keep walking. Dusty feet, ice cream sticky face and hands. Smiling. Solitary, like reading a novel.