Dear Paul Scully.
Today I read an article in the Guardian that informed me that Parliament had passed a law that would allow them to indefinitely detain a refugee if their visa application had been rejected, but it was too unsafe for them to return to their home country as they would face persecution, or worse. I am writing to you to convey my deepest disappointment in our government.
I find Australia’s stance on asylum seekers abhorrent. We are the only country in the world that has mandatory detention for all adults and children during the process of their visa application. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” However, the Australian government has labelled those that come to our country as ‘unlawful non-citizens’. The prime minister himself, when he was the Immigration Minister, famously stated in an orientation video that was played on Manus Island and Nauru in 2014 that asylum seekers would never be resettled in Australia and should consider returning home. “If you choose not to go home then you will spend a very, very long time here and so I urge you to think carefully about that decision and make a decision to get on with the rest of your life.”
Instead of amending our practices, we quietly introduce new laws. Indefinite detention being made legal, contravening international law, is a direct response to a federal court case the government lost, with the court deciding that immigration detention must be for a purpose. AJL20 was a child refugee fromSyria whose visa canceled on character grounds because of criminal convictions as a teenager, and he was detained by the government. He could not be returned to Syria as he faced persecution there, so he faced potentially limitless detention. The court ruled his detention unlawful and ordered him released.
A prosecutor of the International Criminal Court described the duration, the extent and the conditions of detention as a crime against humanity. We are a signatory of the 1988 Rome Statute. But we are also a country that supposedly prides itself on being moral and just. PM Scott Morrison recently spoke of how God called him to lead our country. As a Christian myself, I wish to ask him why he has forgotten Mark 12:30-31. Jesus has been asked which commandment is greatest. He replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
As ratifiers of the Rome Statute, as a country part of a global community, as people who are supposed to be led by morals and ethics, as Christians, we should be committed to helping those who seek help. We are one of the richest countries in the world and yet we spurn those who are willing to risk their lives to come toour shores in search of a better life.
But instead we pass acts such as the Australian Border Force Act (2015). The ABF makes it an offence to disclose “documents and information about the provision of services to persons who are not Australian citizens.” The law effectively prevents employees from recording or disclosing instances of ill-treatment or abuse witnessed in detention centres. Julian Burnside called it a law that makes it “a criminaloffence to report a criminal offence.” Organisations working in detention centres are also asked to sign a ‘performance security’ clause as part of their contracts. This clause involves the payment of a bond – in the case of human rights organisation Save the Children, this bond was $2 million – that is relinquished if the terms of the contract are contravened. One example of contravening is speaking to the media without the governments approval. Save the Children chose not to sign the clause and their contract was not renewed.
I stated at the beginning of this email that I was disappointed in our government. But that doesn’t seem to encompass it. I’m furious with them. The profound shame that I have to feel as an Australian, with a government that passes these laws and treats asylum seekers in a way that has been condemned as a crime against humanity, and all in my name, fills me with contempt for our leaders. Christopher Rau, brother of Cornelia Rau, stated that, “There are atrocities being committed in our names. We are not stupid as a society. So when we elect governments we must – by our indifference – be complicit in the bullying and ill-treatment of others, as long as we can stick our heads in the sand.” But I refuse to stick my head in the sand. As a voter, and a citizen of this country, I have a duty to be aware of what is being done in my name. And I am disgusted by it.
To be a writer is to have a weight on your shoulders of things both unsaid and words uncoupled in your mind. Strings of thoughts and concepts swirling around, fighting to organise them in both succint and beautiful ways. Pouring yourself out onto a page, cracking open your ribcage and having your heart on display.
I’ve always struggled to label my writing style, how to define myself as an author. Lately I’ve been settling on creative nonfiction, or personal essay, or poetry without the flowers. It is writing that is deeply personal, fictious only to blur others identity, or for a little creative licence, to make life seem funnier or more profound. I write selfishly, I write personally, I write in order to arrange my own thoughts and to make life feel more beautiful.
And it is hard. Sometimes I think it almost an act of love. To be so at peace with the self to willingly display the innards to another. Comfortable enough with the actions of the heart to discuss them publicly.
But also an act of torture. There is an episode of Vikings where they perform a ‘Blood Eagle’, which is itself is considered not fictional. The back it sliced open, and the ribcage chipped away until your insides are on display. It was considered the most painful way to die, and a Viking could only enter Valhalla if he endures the punishment without crying out or screaming for mercy.
But the lighting in my apartment is lovely and the breeze is the perfect temperature and I’m playing just the right music to feel nostalgic.
While time is just a construct and a year is an abstract amalgamation of so that we can keep track of our existences, its easy to reminsice at the end of a ‘year’. To look back on the experiences of the past rotation of the earth around the sun. And it can make you happy and it can make you sad but there is much to be garnered from it, if we choose to.
2020 broke my heart. It is the year of loss. A loss of innocence, mainly. Of hope. Maybe a little bit of ideals, or maybe just idealism. But it was also the year of love and camaraderie.
And to discuss it publicly seems so perverse. But I am learning that it is also how I grow. I’ve always struggled with my emotions. I am a bottler, I often joke that I can only have deep conversations when the lights are off and no one can see my face. I think that’s one of the holistic ways writing has helped me, it has forced me to articulate myself while the sun is still up.
I tried to fall in love in 2020. Multiple times. None of them ever stuck. It is a loss I am getting better at dealing with. I am yet to pull the thread as to why, but I still do think that some boxes are not to be opened and some concepts are not to be explored. I don’t believe that truth is always the definitive course of action. Some things are better not to be known. But there is still a happiness in trying to fall in love, while things are still good. Getting to know someone, and being excited when you discover a commonality. Inside jokes that are funny only through sheer determination to have a secret alliance. First compliments and first kisses and songs that will always remind them of you. Being able to touch someone in that simple way that says, even just for now, you’re mine. A hand on their shoulder, a nudge to their knee. A smile across the room or catching their eye and not having to look away. A permission of public intimacy that I’ve always envied.
But with trying to fall in love comes trying to fall out of it as well. When life conspires for other avenues to take precedence. A sadness that is tangible, a weight in your centre of mass. Its not just of the particular person and the things about them you liked, their smell, the way they stroked your thigh, the nicknames and the way they could make you smile and blush at 10.47AM with a text that shows that, you’re on their mind as well. It is losing the concept of an other, a person specific to you. It is no longer being anyone’s number one. No one sending you photos of the sky when it looks nice, or to ask how your day has been. It is adjusting to a constant lack of anticipation. To being just another lonely person again.
There is so much to be said, however, for the love between people who love and care for each other. And 2020 has been the year of friendship. Times such as these bind people together, as we are forced to realign our perspectives and priorities. And I am a blessed woman. Wine Club and dinner parties and learning to cook new things for new people and spending evenings laughing and sharing wines with so many different people I love. Nights spent watching Taskmaster and falling alseep on friends’ lounges as I’m so comfortable in their presence. Netflix parties and Skype chats and long conversations with besties overseas.Beers in park and nights at the golfy. Walking into Black Cockatoo and being surrounded by friends. Learning that friendships take work and dedication and putting in the effort to create a loving and beautiful coterie of humans. To look around a room on a birthday and tear up at how truly truly lucky you are. To love and be loved by such magnificent people.
And it is these friendships that helped me endure the hardships of this year. The separation of my parents. The shattering of family ideals and values that had, with a heavy hand, shaped my life. With that came anxiety attacks and a depressive phase. An inwardness and a bitterness. But with their love and understanding and patience of the gods, I pulled myself together. A love for me that I’m trying to learn from, paired with the help of medication, and I feel weightless for the first time in a long time.
I keep these little notebooks, Moleskins, and I always have them on me, to jot down any thoughts or ideas for pieces. And with them, it is easy to graph myself. Through those pages you can watch me fall in and out of love, to become happy and sad and angry and content. Some pages have tear stains and others peaceful drawings. Today I rewrote a phrase that comes back to me every once in a while, but has been rare this year:
the world is beautiful, and I am happy.
Tell the people you love that you love them. And I don’t just mean declarations of love for the person you’ve been pining over. In fact, I don’t mean romantic love at all.
Existing on an everyday basis is hard. But there are people who make it easier to bear, with their laughter or smile or touch on the shoulder that says, I’m aware of you.
Either by making you tea just the way you like it, or the mere act of remembering something you’d told them a couple of weeks before. People who buy the chocolate you like, or sending you ‘thinking of ya xx’ texts, or tell you when your hair looks nice or a moment they thought of you.
People who have created a space where you can be comfortable, as talkative or as silent as you need to be. The people who give you that warm honey feeling in your chest.
I have a bad habit of assuming people know how I think of them. We see inside ourselves and assume others see it too.
But I’m trying to be better. More open. Purposeful.
Tell the person you think they look pretty. That their offhand comment stayed with you and made you smile for two days after. That the people you have dinner and read the bible with once a week on a tuesday night make you feel love and supported. That the security of friendship and love of wine club makes you happy on hard days. Binge sessions of British panel shows and feeling so comfortable you’d fall asleep on the lounge afterwards.
Tell the person that their friendship sometimes saves you. Their existence makes yours easier.
Tell the people you love that you love them.
Someone asked me recently why I read, and why I write. For me, those are the two ends of the same piece of thread. I do it in order to come to a greater understanding of myself. To read and to write is to understand ourselves more, and to realise that many others have felt as we have. F. Scott Fitzgerald said it first, or maybe he just said it best, “that is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” Others have gone before us, and have felt all the happinesses and sadnesses and all the melancholy that we think is so uniquely our burden.
The epigraph at the beginning of Kate Di Camillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is an excerpt of Stanley Kunitz’s The Testing Tree. I have it memorised:
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
it is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.
It is Kunitz who tells me so beautifully that pain is necessary. That the only way to grow is to endure hardship, that a heart that has never known sadness will never truly appreciate how good it is when life is all sunshine and warm breezes. Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life tells me that “the only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.” To harden myself to the world is not to live, if Malick is correct. Emily St John Mandel in Station Eleven says, “[life] was very difficult, but there were moments of beauty. Everything ends. I am not afraid.” It is through the words of others that I have learnt to find the beauty in life.
I have these little notebooks that I nearly always have on me, that fit into my wallet (the Notes app works in a pinch but its so much less romantic). In them I write whatever comes to mind: beautiful lines to use in a larger story, moments of reality I want to remember, quotes I like, memorials of times in which I felt really and truly happy. I’m onto my 7th now, the first one started in Aug 2018 on my travels.
To write is to open yourself up. To crack open your ribcage, tear out your heart and put it on a museum pedestal for everyone to look at, to examine. To try and to convey thoughts and feelings and emotions with mere words.
In my first notebook, on the fourth page, I wrote:
Love and friendship and happiness and human connection. The strive to not only analyse and understand but also summate. The desire to both comprehend and articulate these most basic tenements. Basic in that they are at the root of all things. They are definitely not basic in that they are easy. To create something that affects people. Something that will resound. Staying in their heads for days and days … I want to change them.
To make yourself a gallery, a testing ground. Here is the way I have experienced life. Here is how it has broken me. Please learn from it.
I flip back through them constantly, remembering how I felt in those instances, or what moved me at that time in my life, the things I thought were worth penning down forever. To read through them is to see how I’ve grown, how I’ve changed. To be able to recognise what moves me, and if it should. To look back on myself and decide if I’m happy with the route I’ve taken, with what it’s made me.
I love to write, even if it sometimes pains me. I like to learn from myself. And for others to learn from me, if they so choose. Even if it is the most basic lesson: I am not alone in this. Others feel as I do. I will survive this. It will make me more beautiful.
And to emulate the gift that authors before me have given me. Kazuo Ishiguro said in Artist in a Floating World, “when I am an old man, when I look back over my life and see I have devoted it to the task of capturing the unique beauty of the world I believe I will be well satisfied.”
And I think there’s a quiet courage and dignity in that.
We must all go through dark and deeper dark. But we must learn from it. Maybe others can learn from it too.
Kazuo Ishiguro, quite rightly, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. His acceptance speech is a beautiful thing. In it, he wrote,
“I’ve been emphasising here the small and the private, because essentially that’s what my work is about. One person writing in a quiet room, trying to connect with another person, reading in another quiet – or maybe not so quiet – room. Stories can entertain, sometimes teach or argue a point. But for me the essential thing is that they communicate feelings. That they appeal to what we share as human beings across our borders and divides. There are large glamorous industries around stories; the book industry, the movie industry, the television industry, the theatre industry. But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”
Someone recently asked me why I write. And it’s for this reason. To be able to put the mundane feelings into words, so that someone can say, ‘I had no idea others felt this way too.’
I love being a writer. I like doing it, and I think I might even be good at it.
But it’s hard too. They say to write what you know. And all I know is myself. Which doesn’t leave me a lot of wriggle room.
So I have made myself an art gallery for you to walk through. Going through, piece by piece, spotting the inconsistencies, the inspirations. You can look at each work and delineate where it came from, learning what you want to take home with you. I’ve painted myself on these walls saying, ‘I hope this speaks to you’. And I really hope it does.
Adapting to loss is strange. Learning what the ‘after’ is like.
No loss is the same – mine is different to yours is different to someone elses.
[Mine is my Dad’s affair coming out earlier this year. We are not currently on speaking terms.]
In the moment it breaks you. There’s less behind the eyes, an emptiness in the chest. A shadow of the former self. It is your day to day reality, a constant blackness.
But then you slowly piece yourself back together, putting the parts of you back in order. Maybe you sigh less, maybe you’re less angry, maybe smiling is no longer a concerted effort.
And everything goes back to normal.
But its not, is it? This is the new normal. It can never be the way it was.
The hurt, months later, will surprise you. A Saturday night in watching Justified, tears come out of nowhere. The emptiness is a shock, a wound reopened. Realising that this is how it is now.
Because you can never be the same. I don’t know if anyone warned me about that. You can’t ever go back to the person you were before, you cannot take knowledge out no matter how much you may want to. It is a wound you will carry always, a hurt that will shape who you continue to become.
To strive for the past is aimless. I guess all we can do is hope that we carry our hurt well.
You will feel sadness most of all. Sadness filtered through loneliness. You will spend your days wondering why. Retracing all your steps, picking apart everything you’ve ever said or done. Trying to pin-point exactly where it started – was it leaving clothes on the floor, or the sarcastic comments you made? Replaying the moment over and over, when your phone first chirped and you looked over to see a message that read:
There’s someone on my bus that is so beautiful it makes my heart hurt and I’ve just never felt that way about you. I’m sorry .
You will look back on old memories, and things will go all beautifully foggy, like a camera lens covered with Vaseline in the romantic scenes of old movies. You’ll picture how things were, back when you were in love. And it’ll surprise you, the memories which stick. It won’t be your first kiss, or the first time they said ‘I love you’. It’ll be the simpler things that last.
You’ll remember early mornings, they will have been your favourite times. Once you’d untangled yourselves from the bedsheets, rolled out of bed and into the kitchen, making cups of tea and boiled eggs. Standing around the oven and using it as a heater. Moving around each other, packing lunches and coordinating schedules. Or dancing to warm up, whirling around to Miles Davis, to what will have been ‘your song’. You always said nothing beats jazz in the morning. They will have complained that the kitchen was too small. You thought it brought you closer together.
Or afternoon toast-a-thons, when you had both gotten home from class or work or whatever daily errands that were being run. Dinner was still a couple of hours away, so you’d make cups of tea and toast. Some afternoons you’d go through an entire loaf, two slices popping up, and another two going straight down. Butter slathered on, and whatever topping took your fancy. And you’d sit around the island bench, legs intertwined, the afternoon sun coming in through the window, crumbs everywhere, talking about your day.
But now , you will not want to eat, no matter how much you know you should. “It’s been days since we’ve seen you eat a meal,” your housemates will say.
And you will know they mean well, but they just won’t understand. You’re not choosing not to eat, there’s just no desire to. You will have both loved too many of your favourite things, a lot of the meals will remind you of them. You’ll have to fight to enjoy cooking again, something you’d done together. Licking the spoon, their fingers. Blanking that out will take months.
Living in a small coastal town will make this harder. Everyone will know everyone, and everyone’s business even more. Walking down the main street, you’ll avoid everyone’s eyes, sure they know. People will come up to you and say that they are sorry. They’ll tell you that they knew you’d never last, that you’re better off without them. You will write them letters that ask: (a) why they never said anything; (b) if they are fools, because you’re meant to be together; or (c) who in the name of all things holy do they think they are giving their damn opinion. You will stamp these letters but never mail them.
Conversations with your best friend will go around in circles. “I’m worried about you,” they’ll say.
“Don’t be. I’m fine. Really I am. I don’t think this will last. I think we just need some time apart. Absence makes the heart grow fonder you know.”
“It doesn’t always. Some things just aren’t meant to be. And I’m sorry to say that. But I just don’t want you to hang all your hopes on this.”
“I appreciate you saying that. But I think you’re wrong.”
“But what if I’m not? What if they find someone else, move on. I don’t want to have to be the one to put you back together again. God, they’re your entire universe. And I’m worried that you aren’t theirs.”
You won’t know what to say back.
Sitting on the bus going to and from classes, pop music will play through your headphones. Sad-alt music is for people who want to exacerbate the mood, and the word ‘jazz’ can no longer be uttered. You’ll have to find a new favourite genre. No one will warn you about this side of break ups. You’ll stare out the window , and realise you can actually feel sadness in your eyes. You’ll go home and go straight to bed.
You’ll fall asleep thinking of them, maybe you’ll still be together in your dreams. Go on long drives and stare out at the sea. It’s a cliché, but you’ll do it anyway. You won’t know quite what you’re looking for in the crashing waves. Maybe they’ll remind you of your heart, both constantly breaking. You’ll think about all the times you had laughed over this scene together in movies, the overworked ‘lonely lover stares out to sea’ trope. How you had thought you were lucky, because that would never be you. You will wonder how much God is laughing.
When you break your favourite tea cup, you’ll cry for a week. Getting a tea cup that you find aesthetically pleasing, has a good hand grip, and is both the size and shape that you like, is harder than it sounds. Someone will say it’s a metaphor. You won’t like their Instagram pictures for a month. You’ll put hours of effort into finding an exact replica. It will break your heart when you don’t. You’ll wonder if that someone is right, if you’re trying to distract yourself from the existential crisis looming in your peripherals. You’ll consider getting a fringe or a new car. You wonder when you became a cliché.
So you’ll start to read more and talk less. Try and understand who you are through comparisons to Elizabeth Bennett, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield and Sal Paradise. See if you can learn from how the Greasers dealt with loss. You’ll try your hand at poetry, and start writing long sad letters after reading too much Virginia Wolff. You’ll realise that other people have gone through this: love, heartbreak, confusion. You’ll also realise this doesn’t make it any easier to bear.
But, for the most part, you will go on existing, trying to live a normal life. You have always prided yourself on not needing people to be complete, so this will hit you hard. You’ll go to work, classes, whatever extra-curricular activity you choose to kill your time. You’ll laugh harder than normal, you always do when you’re faking it. You’ll tell people you are fine, because you are – on paper. On paper, this doesn’t affect you as hard as it will.
Then, on an ordinary Tuesday, you’ll laugh and not fake it. You’ll be sitting in the lounge room, and the sun coming through the front door will bring that nostalgic joy, like the smell of earl grey or a tea cake in the oven. You’ll see the dust motes meandering around, nice and lazy, and you’ll realise for the first time in a while that you no longer feel like the human personification of a clenched fist.
And you will see them, maybe with someone else, and they’ll be happy. But their happiness will no longer make you want to crack open your ribcage, and give your heart to someone, anyone, else.
Other things will become your favourite thing. The smell of a new book, or how the sound of hot water getting poured into a cup sounds different to cold water somehow, the ritual of tea. The way the sky looks when the sun is setting behind you, and for a split second the whole world is pink.
You’ll decide you’ve had an epiphany. You’ll get a hobby, and go for runs. You’ll make a habit of looking up at the sky, even if it hurts your neck. You’ll use the space in your brain where their favourite book was to remember the names of the five closest stars. You’ll still go for long drives, and sigh deeper than you used to, but the plant that is your heart will start to grow new leaves and get taller.
Life is hard.
No one really warns you of that when you’re younger. I mean, it’s alluded to, but I just thought they meant paying rent or finding a comfy couch in your price range and discussing private health insurance.
But I guess that’s for the best. Because maybe if someone told me just how hard, I don’t know if I would’ve gone through with it.
There are times in our lives we think we won’t survive. Existing, in its simplest form, is heartbreaking. The idea of having to get up everyday, and be a human, and to go on doing that forever. (And I just want to say, it’s not suicidal. It’s just…not wanting to be living. There’s a big difference.)
You’ll feel less whole. Like you’re holding onto existence with only the briefest of fingertips. It turns out you can feel emptiness behind your eyes. Sadness is a physical feeling, below the ribs above the stomach, the black hole that defines you.
It seems insurmountable. Having to put ourselves back together. Picking up all the different parts strewn all over the floor, trying to assemble it all, what place fit where. Remaking the parts of ourselves we gave to other people.
But it can be done. It’ll take many cups of tea, and days spent just walking around the apartment, rearranging all the galaxies inside you. The neighbours will probably think you’re crazy. A pink sky will both make and break your heart. But the people who love you will tell what stars of yours they love, what to keep and what to remove. They’ll make your tea just the way you like it without having to ask, make you dinners and tell you that the sun will continue to rise everyday and it’s up to you to make peace with it.
But you’ll start sighing less and the notes you write yourself will get happier and happier. The people you love will become the centre of your universe and moments spent sitting around a table with make you feel the closest you’ve felt to whole in months. And one night you’ll be sitting at home having a cup of tea and you’ll realise that you feel at home in your skin again and it will make you feel something thats not happy and its not sad but somewhere in between and a little to the left. It’s nice.