For as long as I can remember, I have had “habits”. Let’s call them “habits” in the lack of a more official name for them. We could also call them compulsions or obsessions! Tomayto, tomato.
These habits have distinguished the key years of my juvenilia and young adulthood! If someone were ever to write the story of my childhood, they’d have an easy categorisation method, a bit like Yeats’ ‘catching butterflies’ years versus his ‘deciding to stop riding my red pony and instead daydream by a river’ years. You know…those years!
The habits probably kicked off with the “saying things in three” years. This involved any instruction to have “sweet dreams” at bedtime to be delivered in groups of threes. “Sweet dreams, sweet dreams and sweet dreams” my parents would dutifully say. If they accidentally stumbled into the linguistic minefield of wishing me one more dose of sweet dreams when exiting my bedroom? They had to repeat it another 6 times. Because it was in groups of 3. So, if you went over 9? It went to 27. I think I had just learnt about squared and cubed, and I liked to apply my schooling to all areas of life. A generalist.
Then there came the “saying things backwards” habit. You could tell me any word, and a little countdown clock would light up on the stage inside my forehead. I knew the whole family’s quick backwards monikers off by heart. The Ymalleb family, consisting of Allen, Dnomsed, Dnilasor and Acissej sounded like characters from a fantasy novel; the sort I would never read, because I had enough strange superstitions easily accessible in the recesses of my imagination.
Saying things backwards was then replaced by the counting-letter years. I would demand a complex word from anyone lucky enough to be stuck in my company, and quickly pasted up the word on the forehead stage mentioned above. Little birds or bugs, similar to Disney helpers, would hover above the one long word, and draw webs between easy groupings; of 2, 3, or 4. The groupings would spread out and define themselves, and I would quickly add them together.
Dinosaur? 4 and 4 is 8! Appease! 3 and 4 is 7! Ostentatious? The rare (exciting) 5 coupled with a 3 and 4. We have a 12, ladies and gentlemen! Where’s my applause?
Habits have always been there, but part of growing older is that you get a little less exclamatory about them. You want to be proficient at more tangible skills, like catching things, throwing things, public speaking or understanding how barcodes work. It’s not really that impressive to declare the extent to which you order your life in groupings of 3, or the way you roll clumps of sounds around your mouth.
Of course, habits take just as much as they offer. I hate many of my adult habits. I hate the habit of checking that all four burners and the oven are turned off. I hate the little ditty I use to check my front door is locked: “click, push push, tap tap”. I hate the times I get into the car, only to run back to the front door and check that I’ve really locked it.
But I also know where all these “habits” come from. They come from a beautiful place; a desire to keep my home and my cats safe while I’m at work. An interest in language and numbers, and how these building blocks make up systems and languages we use to connect with each other. Growing up in an unknowable world, why wouldn’t we create systems of coping and comfort, in lieu of any belief in an interventionist God and their protection?
I was walking home today, and observed a man across the street with a habit of his own. Every time he passed a fence post, a bollard, a wall, he would touch it with the corner of his jacket. He barely paused for this moment of fabric grazing. It was such a natural and practised movement, he didn’t need to.
I had a moment of relief: at least my habits have never extended to that. But then also: who cares if mine have? What if, in a world full of syllables and building blocks and thrumming molecules, those objects are saying, “thank you for noticing I’m here. Thank you for making my existence a small part of your life. Thank you for turning the everyday into a system of belief, a personal god, a respite and a coping strategy. Carry on down the road, now, carefully, ever-counting. Carry on, and try not to step on the cracks.”
This week, I celebrated my 20 year vegetarian-versary and 2 year vegan-versary by doing everyone’s favourite thing: sitting down with my Doctor for my blood test results. I received exciting news: my iron levels were great. I whooped happily, and explained the timing of these results and my veg-iversary to my doctor. She said, “I bet you eat a lot of leafy greens.”
You’d win that bet, Dottore. I eat more than a lot of leafy greens. I don’t consider a day to have been lived if it isn’t filled with leafy greens, especially a leafy green that contains high amounts of Vitamin C, meaning the iron is made incredibly easy for the body to absorb. So I thought, today I might celebrate the leafy green that I am most passionate about.
Kale. What can’t you do?
Did you know, when kale first became popular in the early 20th Century, it was as a decorative flower? There you were, kale, pretending you were just a weird looking growth, suited to nothing more than being plonked in a vase and making one’s house instagram-fabulous, long before instagram was even a flicker in somebody’s kale-deprived brain.
Imagine if, for years, we had been putting roses in vases without once asking ourselves “hey, do you think these pretty things might also be full of vitamins and nutrients? Do you think they might be the perfect iron absorption method, and also might be super tasty baked as chips, sprinkled with red wine vinegar, tamari and oregano?”
This would never have happened with roses, because everyone has been or seen a child who tasted a rose petal to see if it tastes as nice as it looks (for those tempted to play at home: it does not). As a society, we keep our roses purely ornamental, or occasionally as fun play things, because it’s very cute watching your cat pull individual petals off a rose and play a game of fetch with them***.
In USA during World War II, people began eating more kale because it was easy and cheap to grow, and provided a lot of nutrients to supplement rations. I’m not sure if war rations extended to a sprinkle of nutritional yeast, chopped cherry tomatoes and chives alongside the kale, tossed in a fry pan. I assume not. But, what we can deduce from this is that kale kept people iron-rich and basically stopped the tide of fascism. You’re welcome, says 1940s kale.
Here’s the thing I’m happy to admit, and the reason why I keep peppering (mmhmm) kale seasonings in every paragraph. Kale on its own isn’t particularly delicious. It suffers from the same misunderstanding that a lot of vegan food suffers from. How many times do people rag on tofu because it tastes boring without sauce and marination? Kale is similar. It’s like a piece of bread on its own or a slice of potato on its own. Nothing to write home about.
This is because kale is a nutritional surfboard for flavours, rather than the flavour on its own. It allows you to access flavours in the way that a surfboard allows you to access the sea.
Let me break down the surfboard thing even further. In this analogy, the surfboard is kale, the ocean is a blend of garlic powder, onion powder, chilli flakes, apple cider vinegar and mushroom salt, and I guess the surfer is a preheated oven set on 180 Celcius cooked for 8 minutes. Bam, another recipe. You’re welcome.
Kale is a creative challenge. It’s a blank tapestry ready to weave into art. Maybe you want to chop it into a stew? Massage it with lemon and oil into a salad addition? Mix it up in a tomatoey pasta sauce? The world is your kale wonderland. You’ll find a swathe of kale recipes here.
Kale is also a signifier for so much more than a taste surfboard. Pop it into your cafe name, and you know you’ll be packed with influencers before you can get through three tongue twisters of “turmeric coconut latte light on the latte and inhibiting inflammation.”
Kale can be chewy (with the stem kept in) or soft (stem cut out). If you’re craving some solid hypnotic chewing to bring on the sort of creative trance that allows you to write close to 1,000 words on just one leafy green vegetable, you need some kale stems in your toolkit.
I suppose all of this is to say: kale is something to celebrate. It’s not something to begrudgingly throw in a smoothie because you’ve been told it is healthy. It’s a show-stopping addition to dinner in its own right. So, why not get some leafy greens in your spleens?
***must be a cat person to find it cute and not super bratty.
It’s Ralph’s gotcha day on the 27th. Happy gotcha day, my sweet, complex little boy.
Last night, Brae and I watched you as you flopped on the carpet, breathing slowly, eyes closed in lazy respite, with an occasional eyelid flicker every time we shifted in our seats, stood up, or came close to you.
You are a watchful, cautious, nervous boy, and we love you for it, not despite it.
You are nervous for good reason. We only know small details about your life before us, but they paint a picture. Your life on the streets. That red nose and that squinty eye in your adoption mugshot. You got sunburnt living on the streets. You got goopy eyes sleeping fitfully under cars and bushes.
The sound of revving cars still makes you jump. You love the outside just as much as it terrifies you. You groom yourself impeccably now, your eyes always bright, wide and clean.
We talked about what we had learned from you and made a list:
- You can’t rush certain things. You can’t rush trust. A feeling of safety. You can’t tell a tripped adrenaline to suddenly slow down. These are things you feel innately, in your gut, and they are not connected to reason.
- Relationships never move in a straight line, from A to B, but they loop around, inch forwards and dart backwards, because progress is a journey.
- It takes time and work to be the bigger person in an argument. It takes time to shut off the responses of fight and win. Perhaps real love is giving someone the time and love they need, to become the truest and safest version of themselves.
You teach us much more than a malleable kitten ever could. You – with your anxious bright eyes, your sudden twitchiness, your sharpened claws and teeth – have lived a hundred lives before you entered ours. Everything we offer you is a careful consideration, a weighing of the pros and cons, rather than being gratefully accepted in an uncomplicated flurry of affection.
But we see you soften and ease, ever so slightly, day by day. When you match my footfall up the stairs. When you burst into the shower cubicle to drink from the drain. When you groan with pleasure eating a freeze-dried salmon belly. When you bully your way onto the balcony, flop onto your back legs, and roll over and over, purring imperceptibly, soaking up the sunshine, the breeze, and the smells of life around you.
Happy gotcha day, Ralphy boy. May we work to create a life for you with little fear and much peace, always.
[I wrote this post a while ago and am only posting it now due to technical issues. Please enjoy it anyway.]
Recently, I interviewed director Anne-Louise Sarks about her vision for a production of The Merchant of Venice, currently touring urban and regional areas of the country. You can read it here.
I saw her production of the show on its closing night in Melbourne, before it packed up to go to its next town. And it was great. I thought it displayed beautiful technical skill, and I had at least three emotional moments.
(And yes, the way I speak about theatre is weird because I see too much theatre that doesn’t move me, so now my only arbiter for liking a piece of theatre is having at least one small cry. If I have one of those “keep your mouth closed so you don’t make an awkward honking sound” cries? Give it a Helpmann. This one came 2/3 of the way towards achieving honking. So, that’s pretty damn good.)
Anyway, back to business. Sarks curated a challenging zig-zag of tragedy and comedy, each one deeply unsettling you just as you felt comfortably placed in a new zone, a new mode. You find yourself asking, “how can I laugh while this tragedy is going on alongside the comic scenes?” And this is an important question, because it speaks to a lot of the weirdness of the 21st century. Cat photos alongside human rights abuses, ‘whomst’ memes amongst mass murders. Perhaps the flicking between modes is less jarring on a personal screen, with just our own sensibilities buzzing and fizzing. It’s different with the communality of theatre. We gasp together, we laugh together, we dab at the same cheeks as we cry down individual faces.
This production made me think about the ways in which cruelty and racism find a new victim in every generation. The ways in which religion bonds us with our own, but creates seemingly impenetrable divisions with outsiders. The reference to kashrut – kosher eating – was particularly interesting. Food is a bonding tool, but only for those who can eat at the table. It made me think of the alt-right hating on halal Vegemite, the same people who claim that new migrants fail to integrate with Australian society.
This production held clear contemporary resonances, but it also made me consider the ways in which hatred and intolerance weave themselves into the fabric of our DNA, and take generations to fully extricate. I am sure this happens to the perpetrators of racist behaviour, but I am more interested in the victims.
Racist behaviour begins with cruel epithets, with disregard from leaders, with verbal abuse. It amps up to killing, hitting, chasing down. Racism looks like Antonio spitting on Shylock, but it also looks like a hijab being forcibly removed, or a criminal justice system that values white lives over others.
Racism works by extracting what it can from a given people, until a new victim is found. The direct experience of racism, the daily tangible kind, lessens, for those people. Exists only in extreme places. But something is left behind. Particularly for the survivors.
I have always been fascinated by the character of Jessica in The Merchant of Venice: the way she escapes the direct brunt of racism by loudly denouncing her culture and converting to Christianity. Here’s another effect of racism: distancing ourselves from where we come from, out of our own fear. Fear carries itself onwards when the hitting and spitting and killing may have subsided. It manifests itself in the way we feel about ourselves, talk about ourselves, hide ourselves, carry pride or shame in our bodies.
This production made me think of a document in my family: the Russian passports that my family had with them when they moved to Australia. The passport listed name, date of birth and nationality. Nationality: Jew.
I remember studying an Indigenous Studies course at Nura Gili at University of New South Wales. The lecturer made an important point in our first lesson: in her class, she wanted us to be vigilant about saying “Aboriginal people”. There were so many texts out there saying “Aboriginals” or “Aborigines” and this was dehumanising. People need to be referred to as people.
Every time the Christians of Venice spat out the word “Jew” at Shylock, I felt it in my body. A memory of something that runs deeper in me, in the subconscious, in the memory. It’s why it took me a long time to talk about my cultural background with university and theatre industry friends, to start identifying as a Jewish writer.
At the time, I never knew, intellectually, why I did this. Why I still do it in certain environments. All I knew was that I felt that fear somewhere too reptilian to really unpack. A fear that suggested, to some people, you are not a Jewish person, a Jewish writer, a Jewish cat-mother. You are just the spitting out of “Jew”. You can be reminded of that, dressed down by that, at any moment, in a social setting, in a theatre, in a neo nazi rally.
This production was jarring, but in an important way. It reminded me that we remember, shockingly, sometimes unhelpfully, for a reason. Remember what people can do to each other. Remember the way it lives on. Remember, to prevent it recurring.
In Judaism, we say a prayer called ‘yizkor’ for the dead. It comes from the root: ‘zachor’. Remember.
I have had many nicknames in my life. They include Bellzy (my partner), Jessie (my parents and, oddly, my draconian high school band conductor), Jessitchka (the Russian side of my family), Bellamy (male friends making it clear they didn’t want to have sex with me), Bellnasty (my theatre friends), and Jess (pretty much everyone else I have ever met.)
I had a great conversation with my parents once about my choice of professional name. They said, “we named you Jessica, inspired by the fine acting of Jessica Lange, the fictional smarts of Jessica Fletcher, and Shakespeare’s finest self-hating Jewess in The Merchant of Venice, so why do you use the name ‘Jess’ out in the world as a writer? Why do your readers, clients and colleagues get access to your nickname when you may not actually know them – or LIKE THEM – at all?”
(They might not have said precisely these words, but it was a long time ago and I think I was in a bread-related food haze, so I have blurred some details.)
The more time that has gone by since they suggested this, the more I vehemently agree. Good advice, Mimma and Dids! (How do you like those nicknames?) I have since vowed to use my full name whenever I write plays, perform spoken word, or run projects.
There is a certain accessibility and familiarity expected of us in the arts. We write so personally about our lives, relationships, health and burgeoning acquisition of bike safety skills, that it can feel like your readers are your friends, too.
Don’t get me wrong: many of our readers are, of course, our friends. (Thanks for the continual support, friends.) But, many are total randoms. Many are only hate-reading your beautiful words, because you write about issues relating to feminism, and therefore you deserve to be shut up with their man-words crammed down your proverbial opinion-gullet.
There’s an autobiographical cannibalism expected of writers at the present moment: write about this moment of sickness, this difficult learning experience, this period of indecision. It draws you closer to other people who have suffered the same. But it also opens you to cruelty from people who haven’t earned that level of tenderness from you. Sometimes it feels scary, icky and dangerous to be putting your lived experiences into a big echoing world full of people who may not have good intentions. But we do it. Because we have to express ourselves. And we have to get paid.
In an arts culture where publications and websites are regularly closing, and where theatre companies are defunded and crumbling, we take the work where we can get it. We slice up and dole out parts of ourselves that, maybe, a stranger by any other name would not deserve. Because that’s what people are reading right now. Because that shit is juicy.
So, what do we hold onto throughout this period of wilful, fearful vulnerability?
For me, it’s the name. You are not my friend right now, even if, offline, you are. You are my reader. I provide you a service, which is words and ideas. You take up this offering, and you learn something, feel something, or gain inspiration. I don’t owe you any more than that. This is personal, and it is meaningful, but it is also my job.
And you can call me Jessica.
Did you know it’s Business Time?
This dog does!
Business Time = time to tell you that I have a new website, which is a place that will weave my blog, Would Jess Like It, into my other theatre and writing announcements.
“Woof, so convenient” – Business Dog.
There are some fun plans in place for this website, but in the meantime, why not check out some of the things I’ve got coming up, and the things I have done in the last few weeks?
I have a piece of writing included at Lonely Company’s Beta Fest on the weekend of 18th and 19th February. You can learn all about Lonely Company and Beta Fest by following this link.
I’ve had a few new pieces published recently:
A write-up on the best grandma dishes of all time on Urban Walkabout
A personal and funny essay on low sports participation in women and girls
I then went on 2SER Weekend Breakfast to discuss this issue with the most authority I could muster, which you can stream here. My interview can be located at 1:44:00!
I also did a guest spot on comedy roadtrip podcast Highway to Nothing!