I am, I am slightly ashamed to admit, a little paranoid at the moment.
Some of it is genetic. My family has a history of “nerves”. My lovely cousin, who shares a big batch of genetics with me along with a childhood of school holidays spent together indulging our creative whimsy, is also prone to this state of heightened concern about what You think of me. We sometimes dream about being able to go back to those times where we did not have to worry about careers or non-careers. About how the money is drying up but it’s still your fault if you don’t have a satisfying career. About making our way in the world when we feel so highly sensitive. In that school holiday world of our childhood, we did not have to worry about ensuring our survival in it, and so we were free to dream of different ones. Alternate worlds unravelled out of us, effortlessly. Every day we climbed out of bed into the six weeks of a warm-to-hot Australian summer that felt like six months.
A desire for a return to such a world is not such a childish concept, really. The kind of world where you are able to rise above Maslow’s hierarchy seems really quite a sensible one. It’s an egalitarian one where all of the forms that are daydreamy are incorporated and valued within that world, not cut out of it by austerity, by misanthropy. Where it is safe to be human, unthreatened by the robotic, sleeping advancement towards the AI wiping Us out of it altogether. It’s not a childish world. It is, perhaps in our one-eyed cynicism, a utopia. But it is more a childlike than a childish one. Those two concepts are in actual fact a universe and a half away from each other.
My partner and I have new neighbours. We live in an “entry-level” street in the Dandenong Ranges, on the very outskirts of Melbourne’s hem, which means that there is a whirlwind of ‘For Sale’ billboards that regularly go up and then come down in the yards of all the people we don’t know yet whom we share the same street with. I think idly about going to introduce myself. If the current predominant facet of the diamond that is me was one of the less paranoid ones, I would maybe actually consider doing it.
But do people even do that anymore?
Because I’m not the only one who is paranoid in our Lever & Kitchened public commons, there is no basis upon which I can go and introduce myself to the people who live next door without it feeling on some level like an affront. (At least, not when I don’t have kids, who are the perfect buffer.) In some squirming part of their psyche that’s been distorted by too much screen time, face-to-face time is just so…well, physical now. It’s too messily analogue, too variable, too unwieldy. Too uncanny and uncategorisable. A human being, with all her brokenness bounded by her skin’s wholeness, is just Too Much on your front doorstep. Too alive. What is the point of her?
And of course, paradoxically, at the same time all the humans we come across are Too Much, we quickly judge them as Never Ever Enough. And so when I finally present myself to the neighbours, when we unavoidably run across each other, I will be aware of all the categorising our world of brands has entrained in them. I will be painfully aware of their propensity to box the whole messy being in front of them into easy-to-manage, easy-to-dislike categories. I will be Too Old or Not Young Enough. I will be Too Inclined To Use Big Words (if the brainfog’s not too bad), or will be Too Vague (if it is). I will be Too Friendly or Too Aloof because my neighbours’ thermostats are wildly temperamental and also very fussy about what temperature of person they can accommodate. They will be looking for a reason to put me into the Other box so as to allow them to go inside and return to their screens more quickly, without any quirks of discomfort about how they don’t know their neighbours and now they don’t even want to. They’ll return to the comfort of their screens, where everything good is happening somewhere else and to someone else. Far away. It’s safer that way, even though it hollows out your guts.
And I will judge my new neighbours for their obvious lack of understanding about the importance of banding together, of the absolute necessity at this time for the grassroots of Us to come together to renew the ground under our feet before our floppy culture really does crumble for good. The grassroots is always where the new flourishing comes from. Isn’t this what we want and what we thirst for? We yearn for safety within the commons of community where we are not necessarily friends, and we may sometimes even feel like enemies, but we are in a different category of neither friends nor acquaintances nor enemies but fellows within a community, a unity in diversity, a strength more powerful than any multinational corporation could be.
I will go inside feeling sad that my new neighbours do not understand all this. I will go inside and return to my screen and search elsewhere for those people who know community, who practise permaculture, and who are not judgmental. I will feel scared while looking online for these people in a place that is not here. What if I find them? Then I will feel inspected in a different way. I will feel not the heavy, metal stare of instant categorisation. This will be a different kind of look. I will feel even more exposed in one way, because the initial look will be friendly. A probe of interest maybe, from people who are comfortable juggling the wholeness of people and so who are not offended by the ways I am Too Much or Not Enough. They will not notice nor be offended that my tits are not acceptably perky. They will accept my many contradictory elements, my we-should-pay-more-tax socialism, my paranoia, my dislike of neighbours who pop in out of the blue but who I paradoxically wish to be part of my community.
And so I will withdraw again from the people on my screen who are the grassroots, and I will withdraw into writing an essay. Into tackling the subject of paranoia—learning, as the saying goes, what I think and know and feel about something by exploring it, tonguing it, smelling its opposite ends.
And then I will think about the people who will ultimately read that essay that I am writing, with one-and-a-half eyes set on maybe getting someone to publish it for a hundred bucks so I can pay for the food shopping that week. Writing will buy me a tiny little bit of self-respect while my partner pays for the roof over us, the water that goes into us, the air that warms and cools us, for the rubbish collection that takes away both our rubbish and the rubbish of our neighbours who I haven’t even met but who I already dislike because they disappoint me by their non-understanding of the need for community regeneration.
And so then I will start thinking about the faceless editor at the end of my internet connection who will read and judge and critique my piece of writing. Even though I have had many good and encouraging rejections asking me to please submit again, at this moment I just simply can’t bear the whole fucking game of it. It’s a burden, submitting stuff into a space where we regularly talk about “content” without feeling freaked at how empty the box is when it has not much that’s not linked to you needing to buy something. I’m just too fucking paranoid right now. And so I will stop writing that essay because the world has ridden in on its laser horse of judgment and judged me wanting with its pointy harsh fluorescent laser. Futility will ride in afterwards, like the two horses of the writing apocalypse. What’s the fucking point, really?
And so I will sulk until the urge to write is too itchy, and finally I will turn to the only space that really satisfies when feeling paranoid. When the world is too much or too little, a launch into the space of fiction provides a safe landing. Here, you are the god of your own world. But not the nasty god that orders Old Testamentonians to bash other tribes’ babies against rocks. Or at least not unless that god, who seems like the bad guy at the start of the story, is actually instructing this horror because (as you find out in the second to last page of the story) the other tribe is actually robots from the sixth dimension who in the 21st century will try and kill the humans with AI (and whose babies, by the way, cry very realistically).
And then, just to not make it quite so good-and-bad simple Cartesian, the god himself turns out in the end to be one of the many aliens who has tinkered with your species over the years. And so then your story goes from science fiction to esoterica, and it turns out that although this god is a good god overall, you really need to learn not to call him that because just because his species is from the sixth density doesn’t mean they are gods in the ultimate sense of a completely good being you could absolutely depend upon.
And then you try and write something about the good god idea being really the Source From Which All Comes, Good and Bad, but it’s really hard to write about that stuff so you will leave it out when you finally write the essay and submit it maybe to somewhere like Asimovs or something.
In fiction, since you are the god of your own world, you can love all the people who inhabit the stories that sometimes come unravelling out of you like ribbon. Only later, whilst in the shower washing your tits with the unacceptable level of perk, do you realise that you have been daydreaming. You have been flowing through your own mind in pleasure, pondering things that maybe are very droll and dry like politics, but putting disparate pieces together to see what space they create in the middle. And then into that space pops a scenario, maybe populated with two people. From them a ‘what if’ emerges. And suddenly there is this little glowing orb of possibility that rushes you out of the shower and towards a pen or a keyboard to start fleshing the story out, not knowing where it goes. If you’re a god in this world, you’re not separate from your own creation. You are making it while you’re inside it and it is all far, far too big for instant categories and labels. You have suddenly slipped, unnoticed, into this world, and in describing it a few paragraphs back you were an excruciatingly self-conscious first person, and now you are in a wide, warm bath of the second person.
Here, finally, is a space big enough to breathe.