It’s been several weeks since the smoke from Australia’s bushfires first began to linger over Melbourne and you’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing life-altering has happened. I listen to two teachers at a tram stop in Northcote discussing the start of the school year. One teacher has five grade ones, six grade twos and just eight gold star stickers. What to do? When I look up, I spot a guy from my local café sitting across the road. He’s inhaling a cigarette. What are you doing? I want to shout out to him. There’s an absurdity I hadn’t expected in the apocalypse.
It’s not just the aching slowness of our crumbling that’s confusing, it’s what remains as well. The other morning, I sat on my bike in front of the boom gates at Westgarth station. Next to me, a woman in a hatchback attempted to finish a slice of honey toast. She licked her fingers, a plate on her lap, remnants of honey glued to her fingertips. She was in quite the bind. We all are. We’re trying to save the world and simply survive our day at the same time. Honey toast woman is off to work—and eating breakfast on the way—because she has bills to pay. So do I, and yet we all have to drastically up our game.
Together, honey toast woman and I watch the commuter crowd on the Hurstbridge line slide by. There is nothing quite like the forlorn look of the morning commuter on an inbound train. Now, I find them boomeranging my pity back at me. I know, I want to tell them, you’ve got the better deal. I can barely breathe out here. It’s around 8am, my air quality app says the air is highly polluted and I see questions in the commuters faces that I don’t have answers to. Should I be wearing a mask? Good question. A few cyclists have 3M masks on. Maybe I need should go to Bunnings. There are curiously few guidelines for this.
Mixed in with the shit-what-do-we-do-now feeling is a slick of unease. I keep wanting to tap people on the back, often in cafes, to say, hey, are you okay? I’m not. I’m not okay with this. Last week I had coffee with a friend at South of Johnston in Collingwood. Next to us, a group of friends sat eating lunch together, all Gorman-print dresses and the easy breezy-ness of summer holidays a halo around them. Now doesn’t feel like the time to be enjoying poached eggs, I couldn’t help but think. What are we all doing here? But what would I have them do instead?
Surprisingly, it’s possible to laugh in and about the apocalypse. Last weekend, my sister and I lay on the couch watching an episode of Cheer on Netflix. La’Darius, the lead stunter, was having a tantrum when my sister turned to me and said, you know, maybe we’ll need bunkers soon. Like me, her thoughts kept flitting between the future and my living room. Maybe, my sister continued, we can be underground property moguls. We laugh at the thought of us, 30-somethings who can’t afford property in overpriced Melbourne, becoming high-flyers on the underground real estate scene. Our laughter follows us all the way into sleep.
The laughter is good for other things too. It lets me hold on to the image of an inhabitable world just long enough that I have to level with myself: This is not okay, go on, be brave. And it lets me edge into my grief. After all, laughter and sobbing feel curiously the same, don’t they? Although there has been no definitive apocalyptic moment, there is a definite before we can’t access anymore. We haven’t just lost land and homes, we’ve lost a way of life too.
Maybe this is why I’ve been thinking more about whether I want to have kids. I’ve never felt strongly about having kids, and occasionally I’ll find myself consulting my ovaries about it. Excuse me down there, why aren’t you more into babies? Now there’s an added complexity to the whole thing. It’s not just, do I want children? Or, should I have children given there are enough people in the world? It’s do I want to bring children into this world right now? I’m not sure how to have this conversation, especially with friends who are planning families or have young kids. Of all the ambitions that our climate crisis colours, right now the desire to raise a happy, healthy child has an unmistakable shadow over it.
It’s no surprise to me that the TV shows I’m drawn to most are about small communities, people working together and even breaking down together. I’ve found myself yearning for a Gilmore Girls-style town meeting. Some Taylor Doose-esque character saying, “People, people, we must do better than this.”, and a small community rallying around him. If you’ve seen the show, you’ll know the comfort is less in Taylor’s ability to lead and more about having a safe place to gather and listen to one another. This is what I crave most.
Last Sunday, I came close to finding it. I attended a School of Life workshop and for three hours I sat with 20 or so strangers and talked about creating meaning through rituals. Out slipped snippets of who we are and how uncomfortable we feel right now. It was a satisfying, collective exhale. We need more of this: more honesty, more eye contact, more opportunities to show our human-ness in safe places. Because although my air quality app now says ‘excellent’, something else arrived in those smoke-hazed days and it has not cleared. We can’t shake it off wet-dog style. We are all responsible for what comes next.