Today, plastic is in the news nearly as much as President Trump. More individuals, institutions and countries than ever before are waging war against this new enemy. Whether we are now boycotting all packaging and disposables, drinking out of reusable bottles, or just saying no to straws, there is a definite sense of collective effort in reducing our careless reliance on plastic. The sheer amount of waste humanity can - and needn’t - produce has finally started to weigh heavily on us. And we are no longer only concerned with treating the visible symptoms - cleaning up beaches and filling up our recycling bins once a week. The conversation has shifted to why we need, or don’t need, plastic in the first place.
Today is International Women’s Day, and I love that there is now so much to collectively celebrate as well as champion. We’ve come such a long way in such a short time. Certainly it is easy to notice both the glaring and subtle inequalities that persist in the opportunities afforded to men and women, and in their representation (or lack thereof) across all aspects of culture. But the immense progress made in the advancement of women as equal and potent protagonists in the building of society, over the last century particularly, is nothing short of astounding. One aspect that resonates with me particularly is the rise of the voice of the mother. In what can be seen in historical terms as occurring with breathtaking swiftness, she has emerged from almost total obscurity to claim her rightful, powerful place in humanity’s great evolution.
We read and hear a lot about ‘busyness’ these days. People say - and feel - that they are busy all the time, and it is treated and accepted as a symptom of the age. The more we talk about it, tinged with a mixture of pride and apology, the more busyness becomes a kind of cultural narrative. It’s undeniable that life is very full for most people in today’s (at least Western) society. There are an intricate array of demands on our time due to the cost of living, raising families while maintaining jobs, less localised activity and therefore more travel, interacting with people across time and space almost constantly, and somehow trying to carve out windows for other interests, therapies and recreation too. Some individuals are also engaged in service-oriented activities that aim to help various populations, be it local or international. All of this is a far cry from life several decades ago, when everything was a lot more limited - in terms of where we could go, who we could communicate with, and what we could participate in. We knew less about the world, its problems, opportunities and needs; we simply had fewer options and less information to process.
I realised, after my friends started having children, that our conversations were different. They had all the zeal of intention from before - to share, to discuss, to analyse - but somehow they didn’t seem to bloom in the same way. I’m not referring to the content, but more to the lifespan and completion of a conversation. After my own daughter began to move and demand a little more of my attention than nursing or gurgling as I chatted away, I began to understand. Interruptions from little ones are sometimes sweet and lispy like the first patterings of rain at a picnic, and sometimes boisterous and unsettling like a thunderclap. But they are all a little frustrating because they interrupt the flow of something else which, at that moment, holds your focus more. Of course, my friends and I all accepted that it was simply more difficult now to have meaningful or prolonged conversations when the children were there. We began to ‘postpone’ them to evening phone calls and visits, when we were often tired but longing for some stretches of listening and talking in adult proportions. This is no revelation to anyone with young children, or to anyone trying to have a conversation with someone with young children. It’s fine, it’s a phase, and even a privilege. The revelation to me was that this pattern of interruption was possibly the most exhausting thing about motherhood.
I had already decided to write on this subject when I sat down in a cafe and saw something that pained my heart. A woman in her early forties drank her coffee at a small table, fidgeted, twiddled her hair compulsively, and looked so very agitated. Every now and then she would pick up her phone or press a single button so that the screen would light up and tell her something, or nothing. She was physically in the cafe, but so intensely internalised in her condition that she could have been anywhere. As I reflected on ‘isolation’, I realised that our society is now harbouring so many expressions of this that it is hard to even identify them. We are long passed the familiar example of an elderly person sitting at home in loneliness - although this is in no way deserves less urgent attention. But isolation, in all its forms, is impressing itself on all of us every day. Individuals can now venture out of their home into a public space, and essentially remain veiled and separate from their environment, like puppets in a show, heedless of the set change behind them. They notice little, and are noticed little. Of course, sometimes we leave our homes and feel alive and conscious of it all - the weather, the sky, the sounds, the people passing at that moment, but even then the experience is so easily very solitary. At other times, we can rush from thing to thing out of habit and necessity, and rarely engage with present reality at all - we are thinking about what’s happened or projecting to what hasn’t. Perhaps worst of all is when we desire to interact with others but somehow feel so stifled by convention and our culture of isolation, that it is difficult or even dangerous in our minds to do so. As the roads fill with cars, and the malls with shoppers, and the beaches with bathers, we all become more and more alone, and less and less confident to connect.