Oh, this journey we call life

Recently I went to a very quiet place to be very quiet. I will write about this quiet time soon (which in my head was, in fact, quite noisy), but for now I wanted to leave you with this from the delightful Margaret Atwood. It really says everything I want to say about my recent journey and, yes… life.

Mostly

that travel is not the easy going

from point to point, a dotted

line on a map, location

plotted on a square surface

but that I move surrounded by a tangle

of branches, a net of air and alternate

light and dark, at all times;

that there are no destinations

apart from this.

“Journey to the Interior” — Margaret Atwood

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Can you enjoy things that are still a little bit shit? 2012 answered: yes. (Or: how i learned to stop worrying & love the little-bit-shit).

Perhaps it was because we were all moving towards the end of the world, but 2012 felt like the middle section of a film to me. 2011 set the scene and 2012 was the part of the film where the story builds intensely—cars start getting chased at high-speed, the protagonist screws up and looks likely to lose the love of his life forever, the siege begins, the Sandra Bullocks frantically work to keep the buses they’re driving above sixty miles per hour.

I began the year weening my body “back to life” after a rather tumultuous year health-wise, a task helped enormously by the salt water, heat and happy friends in my favourite part of the world. Here:

Innes NP Coast

Heading back to Melbourne I felt better braced for 2012 and all I assumed it would entail: my PhD confirmation, moving to Canada with my partner, and looking myself in the face and asking it some hard questions (as in, “hey, face! I’ve got a bone to pick with you”). I was ready to shake things up; to challenge myself. Yet, when I found myself sheepishly following a guide towards a Meditation Hall in regional Australia at seven a.m. one crisp March morning later in the year, I did wonder how and why I managed to embroil myself in such “challenges.” But this is a story for another time. My reason for mentioning this moment is that while sheepishly walking towards the Hall I desperately questioned my choices. Like the aforementioned hapless protagonist who just can’t get his timing right, I almost quit on the dream. That particular dream being zen, or at least, the ability to sit still for longer than five minutes a day. I am still not sure how I managed to stay for the duration of the course. I suspect it has something to do with my persistent sense that something good had to come out of doing so, even if that good ended up simply having an interesting tale to tell over dinner sometime in the future. Somehow it all just seemed a necessary part of the 2012 plotline.

The tussle between good and bad/love and hate at this meditation course was not dissimilar to the experience I term ‘the Canadian saga.’ Plans to complete one year of my PhD program at UBC in Vancouver began in 2009 but were constantly interrupted—first by sickness, then by administration, then by last-minute news that my partner was not allowed into Canada. So when I finally arrived at Vancouver Airport in August 2012 to be told something along these lines: “You do not have the appropriate documentation, you’ve been given the wrong advice, you ought to be deported,” quitting seemed to be the clear and final option. Especially since, despite the fact that I had flown to Canada specifically to study, I was effectively banned from doing so until I got the correct visa. And P.S., I’d need to leave the country to get that. I took a moment to ask myself: ‘if my life was a movie, what would the audience want my character to do?’ *looks at screen begrudgingly* ‘Fine. I’ll hang in there a bit longer.’ I decided to think about my quitting options while travelling on the Greyhound bus to Bellingham, Washington where upon crossing the border and re-entering I would be issued with the correct paper badge. Since I was literally taking a bus across the border, then taking a bus back again, I had some time to waste between bus-rides in the charming Fairhaven district. Here I strolled into a gift store displaying the sign: SORRY TO RUIN THE ENDING FOR YOU BUT EVERYTHING WORKS OUT FINE. Assuming this was true, I decided not to quit and I returned to Vancouver. (You see, I am only superstitious if I am desperate. Similar to my reading of horoscopes, or the weather-forecast: I believe what is foretold when it is something I wish to believe in).

I started grad school, I read a lot of Critical Race Theory and Affect Theory and attempted to write about both, and in the meantime I battled a range of mundane problems new folk in foreign countries face: getting lost walking to your own house, buying the wrong items for your dinner because the products are strange, speaking in phone-circles to set up a bank account, realizing you have an accent and sound weird and sometimes completely indecipherable, missing the crap out of your loved ones/favourite coffee shop/local  pub/etc. At times it felt quite like being back at the meditation course: I felt isolated, silenced and confused about what I was doing here, and my broken-record mind went: ‘I should quit. No, I should stay. I can’t take this anymore, I have to quit…’ Meanwhile, as this brain-pendulum swung, I quietly and incidentally fell in love with the city of Vancouver.

My new neighbourhood, East Van, was a delight: on the streets I would smile at new graf that said things like: ‘you look pretty today,’ or laugh at cheeky squirrels bolting across the footpath and up tree trunks. I couldn’t find a decent coffee but cinnamon buns made up for that. The bus drivers were almost always friendly, even on the busy, jam-packed, claustrophobia-inducing #99. The changing colours from Summer to Fall had me walking the streets with my mouth dropped open in awe. When it started to rain that day and never really stopped, I marvelled at these Vancouverites’ resilience: they weren’t deterred; they just slipped on their rubber boots and raincoats and got on with things. Then I saw snow for the first time in my life and felt giddy. Then I snowboarded on it—and Canada knew as well as I did that I was hers.

The 2012 USA election came along to shake me up. In truth, I didn’t pay much attention to the campaign. By this I mean: I followed it, but with a sense of detachment. For the most part I didn’t connect to what I was hearing, watching, reading. It seemed too ridiculous to be real. It was an unreality, I decided. Five days before the election I realised this wasn’t Saturday Night Live and if Mitt Romney got in we were all in serious shit. And so I watched the voting updates with that “vote-count nausea” one gets on election days. When it became clear that Obama was the winner, I sobbed.

Wait. Sobbed?! It was unexpected, even for someone who frequently sobs at odd things. Sure, I like Obama, but he’s not exactly John Lennon. Far from it; Mr “I have a Drone” brings much to be disconcerted about, as the excellent Juice Rap News pointed out:

So what to make of this sense of relief and celebration? It troubled me for some time. Should I have “celebrated” this kind of move, even though I knew this was, in many ways, a celebration of “the lesser of two evils?” The concept seems inherently problematic, especially in light of my feeling towards troublesome celebrations, like Australia Day, which I wrote about earlier this year. I’m still mulling this over, but the following is how I’ve navigated the territory.

In the first instance I recalled an extended member of my family saying “better the devil you know” when discussing his voting strategy, notably, to always vote the Australian Liberal Party, which at the time had been in power for several years. He was not willing to take a “risk” on the other major party (even though both were pretty damn similar then). Now, for those who are more politically-attuned, taking a risk might mean a full-fledged riot involving pitch-forks and megaphones, but for a lot of voters, it is the case that taking a risk might simply mean voting for the other, fairly similar side. This surely sucks, but that does not mean it is not true. Thus, if more voters—lots more, as it turned out—decided to vote for the more progressive side in the 2012 USA election, then I think there’s something encouraging in that. The fact that a black man has been given another chance to be President of the USA when not so long ago Jim Crow was the call of the day, is something to feel encouraged by. The fact that this same guy included (however shallowly) gay people in his winning election speech when not so long ago teachers were being lawfully sacked for being homosexual is something to feel encouraged by. These are small moves but in a world in which every political action we take is suffocated I think we need to acknowledge these moves for the political possibility they give. It shows us that people are thinking differently, maybe even more openly. It shows us that they’re willing to take a risk, however small we feel it to be.

To dream about an independent overturning outside of these two parties is admirable; worthy; NEEDED, but to disregard the better situation of Obama over Romney is perhaps to overlook our systems of knowledge and how they function to create power and ultimately change. They do not exist in isolation and nor do we. If we want to change the system I don’t think we can distance ourselves from it, nor can we upend the entire thing from outside overnight. Even when we work from the edges we remain tied to the inside of that beast, and so our best bet is to nudge those walls from “within.” So, in the same way I applauded the excellent anti-misogynist speech delivered by Australian PM Julia Gillard to Oppositional Leader Tony Abbott (see speech here) but continued to actively disagree with several of her political platforms, I applauded the Obama re-election. If I don’t stop and acknowledge these wins when we have them, I’m afraid I may as well crawl under my bed and wait for Romney to blow us up. At least with Obama in power I am more inclined to leave the bedroom, maybe even the house, and start fighting those Obama policies I think are bullshit and need changing. Of course, this might just be a way for me to defer my guilt, or sugar coat it?

In the end, it was Lawrence Grossberg’s (2010) thoughts in a recent interview that made me think it okay to pause and feel celebratory before making the next political step. He says:

“…one understands that reality is making itself and it will continue to, and that therefore there is a contingency about the world that opens up possibilities. Not in the utopian way that leads to misunderstandings and accusations like you are a gradualist or something because you want to take it step by step to get “there.” I don’t really want to get there. I just want to take that one step and hope that that one step makes the world a bit better, and then we’ll figure out what that context is and take another step.”

I believe Obama beating Romney made the world a little bit better, but it was just one step, and now we have to figure out what the next step should be to make the world a little bit better from here.

I  guess that’s the game strategy I employed in 2012 in general, and is perhaps what we all do most of the time. We take a step towards something we feel will be better and we find ourselves in a new situation, which we work to better again, though often on new terms. A lot didn’t “work out” for me this year – like being separated from my partner for six months, losing people, battling health problems – but in response I took some steps which led to wonderful and surprising things, like experiencing a different way of life and forming new friendships, research connections and health resources. And now it’s 2013 and in twenty-four hours I will be meeting my partner in Seattle. He didn’t get the Canadian visa on the second-attempt, so now he will reside across the border, and I will visit him there as often as I can. This situation is a bit shit, and it’s certainly not how I thought the “movie” would go, but as it turns out, where 2012 was leading me to in its crazy mixed-up storyline was a remake of Sleepless in Seattle… which is also arguably a little-bit-shit. BUT, I am pretty certain we will find a way to love it.