for so many this year, but especially for Audrey Watters
I live in a very small Australian seaside community, with 5600 others. It’s within easy reach of major cities including Sydney, so we’re not exactly isolated. But the non-negotiable topography of Thirroul—ocean on one side, escarpment on the other—keeps commercial development at human scale. I can walk the length of the town. My kids all went to the local primary school. I know the local pathology collectors; I see the two of them at the shops getting their lunch. Last night I found out that the trainer at the gym my daughter goes to is the daughter of the woman who owns the shoe shop. How about that?
In the before time, I had a different relationship to this community. I skimmed and skipped, and drove through it at speed, picking up kids or last minute groceries. In fact, I drove to stores that are a seven minute walk from my house because I didn’t have that seven minutes to spare, seeing as how I was already seven weeks behind on everything. Maybe once a month I’d find myself with the time on weekend to snatch a very quick coffee out and about with a local friend, and we’d both say “well, this is nice not being at work”, while both surreptitiously checking emails.
This year I have walked and walked. I have walked kids to school, and walked to medical appointments, and walked with friends, and walked just to see what was growing in gardens. And in turn I have learned its daily rhythms of place: who’s out to coffee, what time all the different shop owners open their doors, when the school buses wheel in and out of their turning circle, what time the post is delivered.
I have also been the somewhat visible local person with cancer, and as I lost my hair and then slowly got it back, and kept walking, people I don’t know except by these routines smiled encouragingly, cheered me up hills, and asked after us all.
Today I was walking back from the school thinking about why Twitter, the other small community where I’ve spent my year, has become such a place of distress and anger. What does it mean that in this conversation I’ve found sustaining and helpful, that has introduced me to people whose thoughts and research and ideas are of incalculable value to me, people are saying that they have no choice but to move away from the neighbourhood because of its toxic atmosphere and/or emotionally stupid business experiments? What does it mean that so many of those people are women? And how should we even begin to respond to this?
So I was musing on this, and intermittently also thinking about how yesterday’s Australian Twitter was so full of appreciative and reflective commentary on the contribution of Gough Whitlam to Australia’s public universities and hospitals, when I drifted into the thing that happened.
In the middle of a tiny carpark that takes maybe 20 cars, a man was shouting at the driver of a small silver car. The driver was elderly and he kept his window up. As I got closer, the red-faced man yelled “You shouldn’t even be driving!” and charged off to the railway station. I watched the driver pull into a space, where he stayed, evidently very shaken, and still kept his window tightly up. The traffic lights detained me on the other side of the road and gave me a bit of time to think, and when I eventually crossed the road I took a bit of a breath and tapped on his window to see that he was OK.
The thing is, I really think the measure of our capacity to call ourselves a community relates to our responses in a whole range of situations for which there can’t be laws or even social demands, but only instinct. At the beginning of this difficult year, Richard Hall recommended Arthur Frank’s At the Will of The Body to me as a memoir of illness, and I ended up reading many other things that Frank has written, including his beautiful reflection on the tension between justice and care, The Renewal of Generosity. In this book Frank writes on the messy, difficult interactions that comprise medical care: the care that health professionals show their patients, and the care that patients demonstrate in the way that they present themselves. Ranging widely from this point, Frank asks what it takes for us to achieve an instinctual practice of generosity towards others when so much that is awful in the world seems to demand instead that we take sides on issues.
Where we end up with this demand to take a stand, I think, is that our interactions with others become a constant, and exhausting, requirement to show ourselves as good before we speak. Even one of the most beautiful and courageous political interventions that I’ve seen all year couches itself in this way: which side are you on, friend, which side are you on? But if we accept this practice of camp loyalty as the minimum standard for being worth listening to, and no other, I think we’re also running some risks as these standards have to be expressed in terms of the grossest possible generalisation to work at all. And this means that we are already prepared to relinquish what is particular and complicated about any interaction between two people.
The two strangers whose paths crossed so disastrously this morning each had a story, and I heard one of them. The elderly driver told me that the man had jumped out to cross the road from between two cars, and he had not seen the man and so had not stopped his car. There had nearly been a serious collision. I could see that part of this was that the man who was walking was actually running for the train, and he had risked the crossing lights to get there. They met. Harm was done to both, and then by one to the other in the name of retribution, in front of many concerned onlookers.
But what does it mean to respond to this? Does it mean that we start every time from a naive relativism, and a determination to see both sides? Do we really have to search for consensus every single time? What about “Yes, that guy was an asshole because, you know, assholes”? Isn’t that sometimes the only way to make a difference at the macro level to the structure of asshole culture? But then, what about agency? What about agency?
Earlier this year when the mental impact of chemotherapy meant that I could hardly read, I returned again and again to a paragraph of Cornel West’s, just because I could understand it—even if five minutes after I closed the page I couldn’t remember anything about it.
Marx’s own effort to account for determination highlights the multileveled interplay between historically situated subjects who act and materially grounded structures that circumscribe, that is, enable and constrain, such action. This human action constitutes structured social practices which are reducible neither to context-free discrete acts of individuals nor to objective structures unaffected by human agency. … The aim of Marxist theory is to view each historical moment as a multidimensional transaction between subjects shaped by antecedent structures and traditions and prevailing structures and traditions transformed by struggling subjects. (Cornel West, Keeping Faith, 231)
That’s pretty clear. And that’s where I think we are with our transactions, our struggling social communities, our networks, the places and persons that we care for. At some level we have to accept that every side is circumscribed, every speaking position is taken, and every single thing that now can be said will trigger someone else’s despairing fury that this is the same old, same old, mounting up to what’s most wrong in the world. I feel that way myself on so many things. And yes, I did want to chase the guy to the railway station and tell him to STFU with his stupid, vengeful performance of injury. So there’s that.
But when I said goodbye to the elderly driver, and walked around the corner, the real thing happened. A small group of three women came up to me and asked if he was OK, because they were also just going up to check on him when they saw me do it. And for a moment there the four of us strangers stood in the sunshine, and thought about what it meant to each of us to care enough about the health of our community to try to be part of a better way of doing it.
I think we’re all shaken by the state of the world, but I’m not sure we’re done with our efforts to understand it, to bring together our individual resources for care, and to act with both personal and collective generosity in it.
Thanks to so many who have helped me and my family this year, that’s where I am.