Everything comes together in November. The sun comes out and the house stays warm through the night. Cases in Victoria descend to zero and remain there for days and then weeks. Trump loses. There are no euphemisms for this and no hyperbole too great. It feels like the embarrassed silence after months of heated shouting, like waking up from a terrible night’s sleep, grateful it’s morning. We become giddy with these glimmers of okayness. I feel like crying when we meet up with friends at the beach after hundreds of days of isolation and when we first go to a cafe for lunch, we make friends with every wide-eyed person there. We book a holiday out of town – a rebooking of a twice cancelled trip from July. Everything went pear-shaped around July.
In the beginning, I felt a strange camaraderie with the world. We made jokes about running out of toilet paper and people across continents would laugh. The mention of isolation boredom and work pyjamas had wide reaching ripples of knowing nods. Suddenly everyone in the world had something in common. Then jokes gave way to fear and anger and things got worse, of course, before they got any better. Or they briefly appeared to be better before they got much worse.
Relief that 2020 is coming to an end is understandable, the need to draw a line under it – through it even – as we collectively agree it was nothing like we’d planned, but I feel a pang every time someone says what a terrible year it has been, even though I know it has been devastating for so many. In our family alone we lost a dear parent and attended the funeral by zoom, we had illness, we had disappointment and we mourned the absence of friends and family as we tried to show our new baby the joys of the world we brought her into. But 2020 is special to me. When I mention this to a friend in the park, gesturing grandly towards my baby, she says “No mud, no Lotus, right?” and I google the phrase later at home.
This was the year that started with Lotus’ birth, my mum here for ten days prior and ten days after and my brother making a hasty appearance just in time to meet her minutes after she emerged. It’s the year my dad delayed his flight to Nepal so he could meet his new grandchild and the year so many other beautiful babies – Lotus’ friends – were born into villageless isolation.
It’s the year Lotus learnt to crawl. First her own invention, a kind of dry-land butterfly stroke – flopping and dragging her body around the house we moved into in August, then figuring out the more energy efficient version on hands and knees, squeals of delight as she became mobile. It’s the year she learnt to clap her hands, eliciting praise and excitement from her parents, looking at us in turn as she does it, knowing we’ll be delighted. The year she learnt to sleep the entire night, settle herself back again on waking or stand in her cot to call out she’s ready to get up. 2020 will always be the year Lotus started pointing at things she liked, things she wanted, things she recognised and things we asked her to. Every day she shows us the patterns of light on the walls from windows covered with trees or lace curtains. Her full cheeks rise into the biggest smile when she finds even the faintest impression of shadow and bright. There are rainbows in our living room in the afternoon and she will find them before anyone else can. In the mornings, she pulls books off her shelf and hands them to me one by one to read to her as she turns the pages, points at the illustrations and sometimes says “baby!” if there’s a baby on the page. It’s the year she made friends with babies. This year is the year Lotus first called me “Mumum” and her dad “Papa”, the year she started singing along as I play guitar and nodding her head to her favourite songs.
2020 was terrible, but I won’t cross it off. It’s the year we realised how lucky we are, never again taking simple things like going out for breakfast or having visitors for granted. We hunkered down through winter, solving sleep issues with only as many tears as it took to scramble from our bed to hers. We never had to figure out the logistics of how to get baby, pram, nappy bag to this thing or that thing. There were no things to try and get to.
Soon, and I’m sure of this, we will be able to see our families again. My mum will come from New Zealand the moment she’s allowed, my dad will have to find his way back from Nepal and our newish little family will have planes to catch to see Lotus’ uncles, aunts, cousins and grandmas. We have lost people and there will be time again to grieve and process this. Somewhere in the midst of this chaotic year I turned 40, quietly and with a carefully planned glass of champagne. Everything falls slowly into place in November and this blurry and intense, forgettable year is the most memorable of my life.
I wrote this poem from my imagination, looking up images and descriptions of what it might feel like to have a life growing inside me.
after André Breton
Girl with the eyes of blown glass
With the limbs of a curled tadpole
With the thoughts of a startling gesture
With the breathing of a baroque organ.
Girl with the fingerprints of tiny forecasts
With teeth of tight buds and a harvest of rice
With the quickening of fists
With the heart of a fusible link
With the heart of a bicycle pump.
Maybe-boy with the eyelashes of ellipses
With the ears of fine bone drums
With the eyelids of swift translucent fish
With the fingers of quotation marks.
With the hair of hiccupping
And the ends of guitar strings
And of a shelter of bracken
With the bones of clay
With the weight of the world.
From Wit of the Staircase, 2009
There are images here which I love – the “eyelashes of ellipses” and “eyelids of swift translucent fish”, for example. But the last two lines feel awful to me and I wonder what feelings I had back then about having children. “Bones of clay” is vulnerable and soft in a terrifying way and “the weight of the world” feels devastatingly unfair.
Here’s a recent poem, this time based entirely on experience. She is a marvel and she is strong – I’ve seen and heard the four chambers of her heart beating and feel her movements deliberate and determined.
We saw you on the fourth day of spring.
Still part of me and in ghostly black and white
but there you were, like a photo of the moon.
The sonographer chatted the whole way through
recommending nappy brands and hypnobirthing.
We could see your bones, your organs and eyeballs.
You are beautiful and perfect and even if you weren’t
you still would be. When we stepped outside
jasmine was everywhere, new blossom
on the otherwise bare twigs of winter. The next time we see you
you’ll be entering the world, exiting the world you’ve made inside me
and joining this marvellous place of birdsong and magnolia.
Each day the temperature rises gently, our body swells
ripples of your quickening strengthen your underwater dance
beating heart, undeniable presence of being.
This piece was originally written in 2016, following the release of my first novel, Lonesome When You Go (Mākaro Press, 2016), hence some out of date references to “popular” music.
Ed reckons Nirvana epitomised the peak of teenage angst, and the relevance of music to our collective consciousness has been going steadily downhill ever since.
Ed might be the fictional teenage drummer in my novel Lonesome When You Go, but he’s voicing a widely held opinion. Grunge died around 1996, taking the ‘alt’ of alt-rock with it and leaving us with highly processed, watered-down pop-rock – much like the brightly coloured ‘alcopops’ of the late 90s that distracted us with their pretty bottles but did nothing to validate our true teenage feelings.
The years between the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Kurt Cobain’s death have often been described as the height of authentic alternative rock. Earlier this month Sean O’Neal at the AV Club wrote “The faux-graffitied writing had been on the wall for alternative rock’s attenuation into corporate-engineered dross since approximately two weeks after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, right around the time Live’s Throwing Copper was released.”
Cue vivid flashback to the most popular, mainstream, best-grades-and-hair-award-winning girl at my school proudly wearing her orange ‘Live’ t-shirt tucked into her brand new Levis. A completely puzzling image to me at the time in my op-shop altered clothes and wearing-thin Converses. Alternative rock was no longer the alternative, but thank god the 90s gave us what they did.
It’s probably about 75 albums too long and although the top ten includes six alt-rock bands and only two albums released after 1996, it glaringly omits Radiohead’s The Bends and Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, both from 1995. I was fifteen that year and am forever grateful for such perfect life-timing. If ever there was someone to take on the burden of voicing the complexities of teenage emotions for our entire generation, in the wake of Cobain’s passing, Billy Corgan was it. An unlikely hero by today’s standards, but a genuine one whose music burst straight from his own hurt soul to ours, making us realise we felt things, the names for which we had never known before.
Maybe one would argue that this new generation of teenagers have different emotions. Perhaps they don’t feel deep inexplicable sorrow or pure anger at the structure of society, and Ed Sheeran stating that falling in love is mysterious is just as meaningful to them as Corgan’s lyrics were to us. Or perhaps hearing over and over that Bruno Mars’ girlfriend’s face is amazing just the way it is is somehow empowering. But current teenage mental health is unfortunately not in good shape and Miley’s limited emotional vocabulary that reduces people and feelings to wrecking balls and Taylor Swift telling us just to “shake it off” can’t be helping. Emotions and love are much more deeply complex than that and 90s alt-rock allowed us to own those feelings and sit with them. On shuffle and repeat.
Music has always been hugely important to teenage culture and therefore holds a position of great power and responsibility. It’s not the teenagers’ fault it’s been doing a lazy job of connecting with them these last 20 years.
It’s not just the fault of the lyricists either. The need for rock music to speak an emotional truth to a generation appears to be woefully low on the musical agenda while production value and the dollar are high. Current music software is incredible and anyone with a laptop and a few hundred bucks to spare can set up a home studio. But the slick polished sound is a far cry from an authentic human voice, taking musicians yet another step away from their audiences’ hearts.
Back to the 90s and commercialism was already starting to break down the entire point of alternative rock before it had time to fully draw breath.
Some argue alternative music was doomed the moment it arrived. Like a baby born on the moon, emerging into a toxic context of an industry fundamentally devoted to the corporate dollar. Anger in the face of this brought us some of the best music we will ever hear, but the cage of capitalism was firmly locking in the passion and creative rage of not just Billy Corgan’s “rat”, but the whole spirit of the 1990s. A teen culture that was based on values of op-shopping and resisting the system, we were embracing feelings of hopelessness and frustration and sharing these through distortion pedals and low-slung guitar straps.
There’s much discussion about music in Lonesome When You Go – mostly in the form of sharing loved songs, finding the right album to fit a character’s mood, buying CDs and being completely precious about how other people handle your vinyl. It’s about having pride in your musical taste; being able to hold forth at a party and gain credibility from strangers. In one scene main character Paige says, “Music totally reflects the culture and societal perception of a particular time so even if we can completely dig the sound, since we weren’t alive during its inception, we can never really hold claim to the ideology – you know?” She’s perhaps defending why alt and indie rock can now only be emulated – covered and coveted – but never again will it be as truly authentic, pained, beautifully messy, sorrowful and angry, as it was in those heady days of 1995.