Everything’s so quiet at night. I like it - stars, clearer in winter somehow - the air crisper.
It’s been cold - so cold. I laid down on the floor by my heater in the morning, barely awake, and wondered if wrapping myself in a blanket would be a fire hazard. An island of warmth began to sprout about my tummy where heated air was being absorbed into my jumper and I was grateful for any little bit of warmth. My hands and feet were freezing, so I tried to tuck them in further. I thought, I wish I were smaller, more compressible. As if I needed to disappear any more into the universe.
It’s funny. I caught a train from Caulfield this afternoon, fresh from the ocean and the taste of chocolate muffin still in my mouth from the cafe in Aspendale where I go if it’s sunny. A woman walked past me, coming from behind me. She turned to look past me at the person behind me, saying quietly, “What is your name? God be with you.”
I turned. A lady’s back was to me. I remembered her - I had passed her coming on the train, trying to pick the sunniest place unconsciously, counting rows, moving towards warmth and brightness. Though I couldn’t see it, I remembered that her face had been taunt and dusky and that she’d been thin — so thin — a bandanna on her head. She’d been making a phone call, and sounded desperate as if she really needed an appointment somewhere. I’d remembered registering how urgent it sounded, almost like someone trying to coordinate some epic event.
It turned out she was homeless. Running from an abusive relationship in Western Australia, she’d arrived in Melbourne two days ago with nothing. There were shelters and agencies but they were government run, needed money. For twenty dollars she could stay at a Salvation Army. I tried to think about the times I’d made referrals to refuges and shelters. It was a Saturday, the most difficult day (other than Friday night). Things closed down in the weekend, including housing administrators. People had to book in advance. The demand was huge. But did they really need money..? I tried to think. I couldn’t recall anybody saying anything about a fee. I don’t usually do things like this (perhaps because I’m a horrible person) but, looking at her and how thin she was, I already knew I was going to give her the money.
Maybe it was her shaky voice. Maybe it all seemed to rushed, too coherent for someone, too afraid. Maybe it was in the way she was still telling her story. People who’d been homeless for a long time - they stop telling their story to strangers. Maybe I looked at her and thought of the cold of that morning and of curling up on the floor.
She’d come, she told the man opposite her (he’d given her a ten dollar note, so straight that it’d looked like it was ironed that way) that she was sleeping behind a primary school in Elsternwick, getting up early so she wouldn’t scare the children. Saturday was a school sports day, so she’d gotten up early too that morning. “You have to get up early to hit the agencies anyway,” she explained.
"And the people on the train," she said. "They know I’m homeless but they keep fining me anyway. They take away my ticket if I’m in the wrong zone - I didn’t even know Victoria had zones."
It wouldn’t be too hard to be homeless. A few bad decisions, a boyfriend who hits you and threatens your family if you say anything. It’s amazing how many people go through this, judging by the crisis phone calls we get at the place I volunteer alone. I think that we all think we’re wiser than that, but it’s a lot easier than it sounds.And, if I were cynical and if she were actually a terrific actress, if she did turn out to be a drug addict, I’d rather have donated some money to the drug industry than have her starve for the night somewhere if she was telling the truth.
My father and brother were in a car accident in third year. A car ran a stop sign, hit ours in the middle of an intersection at full speed and the van rolled over and over down a hill. My father told me this days after it happened, while I was waiting for the train at Ringwood station, having gotten off a bus from Maroondah Hospital. I’d been angry. Shaken, and angry. Why hadn’t he told me when it happened? But I think about all the things I don’t tell my parents. Actually, chalk that up to everything. What can they do from New Zealand, really? What could I do about a car accident?
Things can change at any time.
Still, between times of absolute frustration with my supervisor who, by the way, is going to go on holiday for 3 weeks in the middle of nowhere (read: no telecommunications coverage) just after he’s told a drug company to ship some drugs over the Souther Health pharmacy before the Souther Health pharmacy has technically agreed to store/dispense it AND before the ethics committee has approved it, AND before the echocardiologist has agreed to do after hours echos for us, AND before Prof B has agreed to let us use his patients..
… between those times, life’s been pretty good. Quiet, uneventful good.
I should be more charitable. When have I become so selfish? I think of my parents, how they used to donate to the Red Cross even though we were struggling to get by for a while when were were new migrants and I’m ashamed. When I work, I’m going to donate to a cause I believe in, for sure.
Another rotation is ending for final year students. People are leaving the country, people are coming back after the end of next week.
I hope everyone has somewhere warm they are tonight.
I think it’s easy to isolate oneself in the frigid weather - wrap up in a blanket and disappear for a while.
Thank you to CT, Dhanushi, Will for all the lovely conversations, Been for the lovely online moments, and Jonny for calling all the way from Malaysia — I know I was a bit out of it, but I’d stayed up all night rushing something yet again (I do wish this weren’t the case every time, but then again I do wish I’d get more notice about things that my supervisor suddenly needs done that are beyond what needs to be done for the project).
"My biggest fear is that some broken things are so fixable, and that everybody is just too stuck in their own little world rotting to see it done. I’ve tried being vulnerable and opening myself up and it’s so lonely, because nobody else even comes out of their shell enough to beat you up. Everybody’s just festering, festering. Because nobody knows the existence of anybody else"
“Every drop of the ocean lives. To say it teems is insufficient. It is an ecology, an orchestra, a cosmos unto itself, thick with algae and bacteria, luxuriant with amoebas, populous with diatoms cheerfully engaged in the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, oxygen, phosphorous, iron, and silicate. Every sea is alive, and every man is a sea.”—from ‘Whiskey and Water’ — Elizabeth Bear
I have that feeling I used to get when traveling (always a late flight, or an early one, because they’re the cheapest) when the airport cleaning staff are briskly attending to the things people leave behind and maybe thinking of their children tucked into bed, or the clerk opening the check in counter with a yawn.
If anybody were to ask me what it was, I’d say it would be the thing most people would think about in the morning, between bed and that first cup of coffee in their kitchen before anyone else gets up. The expectation of someone coming downstairs to talk to you sooner or later but at that point in time you are alone, on an island in the middle of your very own life. Sometimes it’s a pleasant thing, if you’re needing a break. At other times, unpleasant, if you are going through a generally bad patch or are stressed. In my head when I imagine this scenario, I always imagine those mornings to be particularly cold, grey - winter days, when the coffee you are drinking is from a bright red mug and you are in a grey bathrobe.
Once, in first year, feeling a little like this, I took a train in the middle of winter to the city (still unfamiliar then) sat outside Crown and watched people duck in and out of that water feature that used to spray jets of river water up out of the ground. It’d been freezing then - I was in a t-shirt, thin skirt and the flames of the light shows were welcome every fifteen minutes - some minute warmth. I went home, walked back into the dark through those tiny streets and stretched out in bed.
These past few days have been busy. The departmental presentation went well on Monday, Jonathan and I scrambling to figure out what it was that we wanted to say and how to say it even at 2pm when the meeting was supposed to start. My supervisor is very last minute. Afterwards he said we did fantastic jobs as if he was actually really surprised.
Some moments in time — leaning on the wall of a bar in the smallest side alley, looking at someone telling me something awful, feeling guilty, feeling small and confused and wanting to help and thinking about two months ago, how I could have done more for somebody. Wanting, for some strange reason, to touch someone to comfort them, or kiss them to breathe life back into them — these have been on my mind.
Last night I went to inspect a friend’s house, and also swap movies. He had so many old films, which were comforting and nostalgic.
Watching Bill Murray whisper in Scarlett Johansson’s ear for the last time, kiss her, leave in Lost In Translation - I haven’t seen it since I was 16 (on my birthday) - I want to go away, somewhere far where nobody belongs anywhere. Plan a trip to Japan alone.
I didn’t get the film back then. I found that watching it now, I feel so differently about everything.
Red velvet cupcake and Japanese green tea ice cream
My comfort foods change so much - vegetarian lasagne, anything from Meisha (a tiny Japanese restaurant on Lonsdale), creamy soup of any sort. Recently it’s been red velvet cake from The Cupcake Bakery and Japanese green tea ice cream by a semi-obscure Australian company called Serendipity (Check out their website).
I love the power that some tiny tokens in your day have to cheer you up inside and out. :)
Late morning, stepping off the platform at Aspendale — as you walk down the road you get glimpses of the sea between houses, hear the cry of gulls.
Walking into the cafe in the little shop strip by the station, getting coffee, brushing my fingers the skins of fruit in the grocers next door and picking out one red apple, two mandarins — these have formed my Saturday routine.
Aspendale’s a family suburb — a mother was riding one of those bikes with a carriage at the end, baby in tow. I walk another fifty metres and a man rounds the corner with two little children, and we wait on opposite sides of a small road for a car to pass us. One afternoon, waiting for a train to take me back home, I walk to the waterfront. It’s empty, pristine - a continuation of the long bay that Carrum is also on. Colourful changing huts, abandoned, stood in a line next to the lifeguard house. Somewhere a woman walked a dog, swung past us and the water kept coming to just below my feet.
Sometimes I think I’d sell my soul to live in a house facing straight out onto the beach - no road in between. All alone, one hand held to the sky and looking at the outline of my fingers against the sun, I am relieved (about what? I’m not sure).
These Saturdays are a recent thing. I’d sold out. I’d agreed to tutor someone for money. UMAT, too, of all things - the exam high school kids take here to get into medical school or a health science related course.
My experience of the whole medical school application process might be a little bit different from other people’s, from the things I’ve gathered these last 4 years. Everyone tries so hard to get into medical school here, get good grades, etc. For me, it was an almost-afterthought. I had already planned on doing a common first year in Auckland and applying for medical school with the rest of my friends. Who knew my exam scores were good enough for an interview in Australia? When I got here I felt naive, carefree — grateful, even, to be all of the above.
As it was, I thought UMAT was untutorable to a certain extent. Walking to meet my tutee for the first time I had already made up my mind to quit if the person turned out to be a complete nutcase, or someone who would make a terrible doctor. The only reason I took the job was because I needed money anyway (I’m not too proud to be doing it, on an ethical basis).
The family of this young woman a house in one of those development villages. You could tell that the drive they lived on didn’t exist before a certain time, and that it was created solely for the purpose of these villas. Her father, an actuary, is a large man who at times seems severe and at others accommodating. Her mother is a lovely woman who talks a lot about her daughter’s hopes and dreams. I like this family immediately for the fact that they seem to support her decisions - if she didn’t want to do health sciences, it would be ok.
She looks, behaves, and even sounds like a friend of mine from New Zealand did in high school - Natasha.. it’s uncanny. A ribbon in her hair, and it would be complete. Not that I tell her any of this when we meet, only set down a practice exam in front of her and smile, and time her so I can see which sections she finds hardest. Subsequent weekends we do questions together, talk about medical school, high school, her life.
It’s hard not to like someone who is so young, who has so much potential to be anything in the world.
II. Letters home
Except, Written in a Journal, 5th May
I’m say I’m going to write again and 3 months go by. The optimism of February - summer - hasn’t quite carried through to autumn. It’s easy to give in to melancholy days, even though the weather has only recently frosted over.
"So much has happened". —-that is what I want to say, but really, the problem is the opposite. What I’m doing is watching the husks of leaves fall from trees. These trees have a precocious familiarity to them. June was when I moved here, one carload of items. I’d never walked down the street I walk down so often now, ever been to the hospital where I’d spend most of my time for months and months. Now I feel like I know this place inside and out. How could I have been a stranger once?
That’s just it. I’m a stranger still, in many ways. I do not make home, the the most guttural sense of the word. Perhaps it’s just a season when everyone wants to be warm and inside, surrounded in a nucleus of people who have known them their whole lives.
Last night I went to the John Mayer concert in Melbourne, Rod Laver Arena. It was packed to the brim, so many people in the dark. Jan and Dinesh and Neel and Nicole were sitting on either side of me, and when it started they both leaned away, towards each other. Left alone in the dark, I screamed happily with the rest of the crowd.
I felt like Rose in Titanic, that shot of her on a horse after Jack’s death, doing things as if she could write home to him about it. Dear Jack, she’d say, I did it. I rode bareback and wasn’t afraid. I imagine her imagining what he’d say.
So many thousands of cellphones and camera screens lit up when the house lights went down. John Mayer played on these giant Persian carpets which, apparently, he took with him everywhere. Isn’t it weird? I feel like he’s been in the background in my life for so long, like he was somehow involved personally all the times I cried, the difficult conversations that either happened or didn’t back when I was achingly naive, vulnerable (how I wish I still were). ‘Your Body Is A Wonderland’ was playing in my head when I wondered, for the first time, if you could be more saturated with love for another human being - another human life.
He was singing 3x5 too. The words someone had once scribbled down in a letter being sung by the original person, and I felt the world clicking into piece like an old roulette table slowing - you know, the sound of the clicks as it approaches a number that so many people are waiting for.
It was suddenly a little strange to be there. I wanted to laugh a little. Somewhere in the world, a thread was humming.
For who he is to me, I will see him in concert every time he is around, whatever city I’m in.
Weird how we can never pick how we will change, and what changes us.
Winter, cold and hard, is coming inevitably. I’ve been cooking more and more lately. I’d like to migrate to somewhere warm.
When, running late, I met Jonathan coming in (also late) he told me that it was the coldest morning this year in Melbourne. We were on our way to the Cardiac Surgery Research Unit lunch on St Kilda Road, a farewell to Padma and Yi-Wee who had handed in their theses and were off home in a matter of weeks.
A jaywalking crackdown in town recently has us using traffic lights, despite road works blocking a section of the side street.
I mention tutoring sheepishly to Leslie at lunch and to my surprise she said that her daughter was doing a gap year in Israel, and would I be able to telephone long distance to tutor her? She’d be sitting UMAT in London this July. Aspendale, long distance phone calls to Israel — where will this tutoring take me? Someone stop it before it goes out of hand! Still, I paid for a cupcake with the money I earnt last Saturday, as well as ice cream, and the ingredients for the soup last night too —
I’ve been cooking a lot more recently, partly to ward off long winter days by warming near the stove, party to keep myself occupied in down times when things don’t need to be done.Cucumber and egg broth, baked potatoes, pasta, pudding, caramel sauce, poached fruit, eggs, chestnuts — so many autumn foods. I want to roast pumpkin, make vegetarian lasagne…bake a cake. Gingerbread. Anything.
Caught between tasks, I read the biochemistry of porphyrins, and finally make sense of prophyria. Or Nick Flynn’s autobiography (shelved under fiction at Borders). Something is comforting about words, about learning — whether it be about uroporphrinogens or coproporphrinogens, or about the nuances of a poet’s life — a poet who you once printed out and stuck sneakily onto your Literature teacher’s desk after semi-breaking into her office (not really, she leaves it unlocked, lets you study there sometimes surrounded by a heavy floral scent which, in your head, you label freesia just because you heard her say she liked them once).
Reading Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, it struck me — so this is what happens to people who are horrible to others their whole life. They become fathers who used to aspire to be writers but who ended up as con men, they have sons. Nothing is redeemed - the son has a difficult life, does hard drugs, has accidents, lives on a boat for a while, becomes a writer, writes about it. Something along the way must have saved him. Perhaps it was working at the homeless shelter. Perhaps it was becoming a counsellor.
Counselling so often saves people. Not just getting it, but becoming a counsellor. You hear stories from other counsellors about things in their personal life, how they used to be, what they learnt and you think wow, how are you still here sometimes. Occassionally they tell you, “I’m so glad that I did psychology.”
I go on a date. Decide not to go on a second date. We realise how silly it is, and are satisfied to maintain status quo. I go home a little relieved.
Meanwhile research is starting to roll on. The literature review deadline is approaching and for once I’m grateful I did most of the work earlier on in the year so I can take it easy.
Elective organisation is high on my list of things to do too. I’d like to go overseas, though timing might be an issue. I wish America would make it easier for students to do terms with them — namely John Hopkins, which I sort of want to go to (Harvard is way too expensive and crazy, I’m really not sure how Jessica managed to do her research there for an entire year. The tuition a 4 week elective slot alone is ridiculous, though if I remember correctly, Jessica’s family is loaded).
Oxford, maybe? Or maybe just locally — it’d help get a job, at the very least. Plus, I’m not sure what I can afford right now, being overseas already, technically.