Empathy in the Face of…

The only actions that seem to carry any value in the face of death are those that reduce the suffering of our fellow persons and those generations who are still to come. How many times have I walked roads paved over and over by the long-dead generous of spirit?

Nature is an unfathomable spectacle, but it is also unimaginably cruel and unconcerned with the matter of suffering. Perhaps the more we attempt to transcend these machinations the more heartbroken we become at our limitations and, ultimately, the cosmic indifference our surroundings hold for these pursuits.

I truly believe that – at our core – our species are meaning-makers, sowing seeds in barren ground, crafting castles out of grains of sand, and searching for justice in a seemingly random cacophony. I think this perpetual dissatisfaction with the natural laws, social hierarchies and the prevalence of pain is perhaps our most arrogant of qualities but, paired with our equally powerful impulse to find significance (beyond any evolutionary purpose) in the spiritual value of ethics and morality, provides us with a uniquely empathetic ego.

This can be found in our ability to see civilisation, community and collective growth in the collaborative efforts of our scattered atoms or simply our capacity to find love in a stranger’s face. We feel pain so we can look to the person next to us, see certain reflections of ourselves and say:

“Excuse me sir/madam/other, I don’t mean to cause alarm but, if you’re anything like me, could you spare a second to hold me close. Please, help me understand, what is the meaning of this enduring struggle?”

Now, how successful this interaction is with those who we don’t, on occasion, share a mattress or a bloodline with is yet to be verified. However, I think we can all recall an experience of infinite value in that connection and understanding and I believe it’s one of polite society’s biggest errors to reserve this sense of communion and physical affirmation to lovers, family, and religious groups.

We’re all trying to grapple with the throes of pain and the sometimes-more-jarring interludes of pure unfettered happiness. But we are stuck with a half-built puzzle, refusing to share the pieces with almost all of our fellow puzzlers, often hoping to find all remaining pieces in the box of just one other.

We were born half-formed and will depart the same if we don’t learn the power of intimate and compassionate empathy. To be human is to be trapped in a perpetual bad date with the world around us, lost in the incongruence between our needs for intimacy or purpose and a universe that simply does not share the same values. All we can do is listen to each other, share when appropriate and help move our world accordingly.

Within these universalist statements there is, of course, the potential for flattening or oversimplifying the diverse variety of experiences and perspectives of those positioned along different sociological intersections. After all, the root of many corrupt and unethical socio-political structures started with an idea (or illusion) of unity and equality: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

Modern capitalism can be seen as one of these many dangerous misunderstandings of human need that uses a premise of “human-nature” and “empathy” to homogenize and hierarchize the masses according to one dominant perspective.

This superficial treatment of empathy and “sameness” as a tool to obscure the reality of an uneven playing field or to justify economic inequality is a fundamental betrayal to this communion of being. Real empathy means looking past the bounds of that elitist perspective – putting all of our laws, industry and economy to one side – and truly engaging with those who have fallen through the cracks and whose pain is unheard, unacknowledged, and unacted upon. Only then can we begin to approach the superstructures that sprout around us.

When a large portion of a crop is found to be poisoned, the farmer must re-engage with the needs of the soil before she can sow the seeds of a truly fruitful harvest. I believe this to be true with empathy. Empathy is the soil through which all ideas and connections prosper. If we remain socially-distanced in not just a physical sense but an emotional and spiritual sense, I think we will begin to see both an unravelling of our social lives as well as a crumbling of the castles we’ve built, hand-in-hand, with those precious humans that we’ve all taken for granted.

Hold those who need to be held and listen to those you might be inclined to avoid. They might get the wrong message and they might make you mad but, at a minimum, you’ll get in touch with their humanity and – I believe – a small piece of your own.


Grandparents. Who knew I would miss them so much – that I would yearn for that wrinkled touch? I look at him and I see a shadow of a man and it scares me. He closed himself from the world so I closed myself from him.

When I see him I see me, or at least a possibility that frightens me. So I turn my back until he fades from concern until I may no longer have the chance to return. Then I will sit throwing stones, cursing at a ripple in my reflection. I’m upset with who I’ve become so I use him as my scapegoat, a wicker portrait of “well at least I’m not…”. I run down the barrel of my throat, looking over my shoulder and tripping into a familiar rut.

I wonder what age he was when that switch flicked in his mind when he started putting up fences and saying: “ok, that’s all well and good but let me alone to cultivate my pasture here and you carry on with your business, it’s none of mine.” Eventually all the best kept gardens turn to jungles you can’t quite peek outside of, and the foreign begins to feel dangerous. You’ve felt safe here for so long so why would you want to leave? Things make sense. Even if it’s a dream why roll over and wake yourself when you could stay blissfully eating of the fruits of your hard-earned labour?

Look at your grandson so filled with conflicting ideas; a blind and endless outrage pouring out of him and you pity the fool who flails in the mystery. Who falls like the rain and rises with the sun, who knows not of pain, what it’s like to lose someone that breathed and defined with each stroke of her palm. She made you wilt, made you shine, told you that this garden was Eden and even if one day you part she’ll leave herself rooted deep in your dog-toothed heart.

You can’t change because to believe that this is not enough feels like spitting in her face. Her face that fell limp in your arms when the chill slowly rose from her toes to her cheeks. When closing your eyes that night felt like a cruel curtain call, shaking you awake alone and confused for the first time in what seems many many lifetimes. You felt helpless as a child but you no longer had those who would comfort you, pat your back and teach you of the ways of the world.

Something felt different. Your children look at you strangely now, seeming to estimate how long you’ve got left and looking with pity when they attempt to assess the damages non-verbally. You mustn’t be a burden, you must keep moving, keep your head down and cause no undue strife: you’ve had a nice life after all. Let’s just sit down, have a beer and put her in autopilot.

Think of this as an epilogue, no expectations, no disappointments or treasure troves. Just the surety of the rain and the sun and the daily syndicated paper that speaks your language and tells you what you already understand. Pay no mind to the ravings of the young. They’ll learn one day, after all this fighting, how it feels to truly die to the world and clutch their pearls as if they’re the last marbles left. Rolling and recategorizing memories just to see how they sit. You reach out to me and you offer me one, but I hesitate because it’s not the truth that I asked for and not the man I wanted to deliver it. You’re an archive, a ghost, an auto-didactic nightmare for the young but you’re here for a few more days and I should step back, and learn to let you brighten one.

This Digital Weight

Long before the currently mandated separation, I felt familiar with this distance. As a child of the internet age, I often recall episodes from my past that never entirely happened — at least not in the physical world. Moments of real connection and emotional substance neutered by pale colour palettes and sterile displays. Now that my COVID-19 social world is made up of these isolated interactions, my friendships feel lonely, like phantom pain.  As we step further and further into this social distancing you might find yourself haunted by the same ghosts. If you’re sensing the idealistic promises of social media starting to erode as loneliness seeps in, this piece is for you.


But, how are we capable of this strange dis[connection]? After all, is social media not the saving grace of humanity, touting itself as an extension of — if not a replacement for — traditional means of communication? As the virus holds us and our loved ones hostage, the warnings of the old-guard that “long-distance never works” and “they’re not worth emotionally investing in” are beginning to seem like ancient commandments.


The idea that ‘real connection’ must be bound to two sets of matching x-y coordinates was already beginning to seem alien. For this is the new limitless social pool, bound only by time zones and bandwidth allowances. Now, with the COVID-19 crisis, our online infrastructure is facing its biggest test thus far: can it truly be an effective substitute for face-to-face connection?


I feel because of my age and Gen-Z status, it’s almost sacrilege to say this, but: of course not. I think this is largely user error, as our ancient monkey brains require something more substantive than this digital format. Minds that were trained to read reality through the five primary senses have had its stimulus whittled down to just one or two. We crave this connection so badly we’ll even invent our own realities based on the most unassuming of instant messaging prompts. Social media offers nothing but empty information without users. It gives us a platform to exert the full depths of our imaginations and to project our hearts and dreams onto its pale landscapes.


We try our best to fill these landscapes with the full sensory spectrum. Our minds, the great scavenger-thieves that they are, have cobbled together a catalogue of images, smells, even tastes through archives of previous occurrences, first-hand observations, novels, and perhaps — most importantly — the mass-media library of the internet. We draw from all of these and, suddenly, a conversation mediated through apps on a phone or computer monitor suddenly becomes embodied in our mind, alive with colours, smells, and flavours.


When we turn that phone off or shut that laptop, we’re reminded that — no matter the internal tinkering and complex emotional arithmetic — we are just two individuals lost in the complex machinery, fishing for whatever interpretation feels the most appealing. Every conversation is a great globe-spanning endeavour involving distant, orbital satellites, cell-phone towers, and intricate communication networks filtered through a chic interface to simulate a closed, private space.


Besides, while video calls and chat rooms feel personal and private, these platforms (and our data) should not be mistaken for our property. Not only are social media platforms the arbiter of communication, they have now become the gatekeepers of our memories. First confessions of love, reconnecting with old friends, and the rekindling of flames all birthed from 1’s and 0’s. I am part of a small group — growing larger each day — of those whose foundational memories have taken place in offshore accounts. Human connection, corporatized and harvested for advertisement revenue, inflating the commas of awkward tech billionaires. The threat of a data wipe that takes out a decade’s worth of digital investment has me perpetually petrified. I can’t log out from that.


So, here we are, making innumerable disembodied memories with friends, coworkers, and peers right in our bedrooms. Perhaps, this crisis and these new forms of communication and connection only help to illustrate how alone we are with our thoughts and feelings, no matter the degrees of separation. Instead of arriving home after a night out, we finish our call, take off our headphones, and crawl into bed. A room once filled with life, conversation, and tired jokes from old friends, now nearly empty — except for an impression.


Holding familiar faces in our hearts in the dark, they’re hazy sketches at best. We do the routine of checking in with all of the social threads, quantify online feedback, post the Instagram story chain-mails, and pray, pray, pray for a time when we can stop pretending that this is enough. That someday soon we can see, feel, or simply breathe in the company of our species without this digital weight.

Jesus Came to My Birthday Party

Salty rims and too-warm wine

it took me two minutes to do my makeup in the rear vision mirror

hands trembling like stuck cicadas

as they slide closer to my knees

i’m so late,


Unshackled, undone

the nail in the coffin of my aborted marriage

a life in ruins

and I’m high on adrenaline

how far can I take this?

Pour me another,

and I’m losing grip

on the mess I’ve left,

the screaming mouths

a broken home, gasping bed sheets

that were so recently filled

spilling with our familial warmth

too warm, too much flesh

breeding maggots in the road kill of our silences

Tell me I’m pretty

let your hands run

in the kaleidoscopic claustrophobia

of this celebration hall

Here is my youth

in the flat of my palm

the stretch of my skin towards your shoes

Floating, free

I’m sea-green and sinking

Can you see the way

the floodlights catch ahold of every swollen drop,

the underside of every gum leaf

silver and shivering

I’ve lost it all,

but I’m finding you in every drag

Unencumbered, skyward

the wet grass

soaking into my underwear

Is it your arms I can see extended towards me?

your chest

a sun-warmed rock

your elbows sturdy

as I

let go

The world looks to be ending (in your arms)

As the Boomers fall from the sky like figs,
Excreting extinction from each and every orifice
And pale Pestilence bubbles up from the ground where we’ve laid
Our frail to rest and where the young will shortly follow

I long to be in your arms

As you and I abandon all plans past next Tuesday
Don’t cry for the mob will hear us sniffle:
The mob who forgot their neighbour
Amidst their self-mummification who
Monitor and mutilate and

I long to be in your arms

As the Flames rise up like spears in a phalanx
And we self-isolate in squat-houses,
The sky tinted red but our souls tinted blue, the crackling
Reception Overpowers you and

I long to be in your arms

As we lose ourselves in it all,
When a shiver turns to pneumonia,
The poles have flipped
And we’re spinning
Like the chambers in a Russian revolver,
I wander empty streets and

I long to be in your arms.

Artwork by – SOUP

Fading away

I don’t walk alone very often anymore

A set of single footprints tracking across

Dirt like soot

Mashing gum leaves the color of a pastel rainbow

Dusty pink, wattle and lime

My thoughts carry me like a conversation

Over the burning rise to the spinifex

Her shimmering mass before us

Glimmering and sliding

Clouds like clotted cream just above the brim of my straw hat

I read to take my mind off the silence

The absence of questions

My voice unpracticed and rasping when I said “don’t worry about it”

To the wet lady like an emperor penguin and her leaping sanded dog

Children lost and alone on trains

And I’m walking further from mine

She greets me across the crisped plates of sand

Holding my calves and licking the inside of my knees

I walk the length of the bay where my grandmother rests

The still-high sun forming a delicate weave of white light across the tops of the water

I sing softly to myself stopping to pinch between my thumb and forefinger a bright red crab, also sleeping

And I think of the joy the boy would get from such a sight

I greet her


As if she is imprisoned in bronze and ninety degree angles

When she is everywhere

And nowhere

The motes of dust and the salt in the waves

What a fucking terrifying life this is

As we all



I embark on a circumnavigation

Astounded at what this body

Can do

As I clasp cliff faces

Lurch across divides

Still singing inching myself up the sandstone

Climbing the stomach of a fallen beast

Never looking down

I trace the outline of a fossilized shell

Her concertina edges

Note the crabs (still scuttling)

And two prawns stranded in a hollowed out bowl

Filled with sea water

Obscuring themselves behind the mustard seaweed like pearls, like bubbles

This lunar landscape

Pocked and sculpted

By lamenting winds

I plunge into salt and weed

And pick my feet up across the homeward


Buoyed and blooming,


Irises digging into the last of this day’s light

As I whisper goodbye

Black Spot

Rocks fling from the asphalt, loose pennies cast at my upturned bowler-hat bubble car, asteroids challenging my ozone windshield;
I’d forgotten how these roads feel.

Scattered with obituaries to long-dead high-school hopefuls. Laminated photographs,
cryogenic colleagues forever youthful; trunks smiling with plastic flowers, music blared: my Piccadilly daydream-

Each sliced bud grows in me, burgeoning, brimming with belated dreams: lifelong passions… complex machinery evolving day in, day out, all erased by a flick of the wrist.

The power of gods in these hands. Who let us behind the wheel?

It feels heavy in my hands like stainless steel.

Now you’re gone

My hands grasp tight the empty air

And I can hear my breath

If this song doesn’t strike me down

Then the hunger will

The air is sucked out of my lungs like the speckled stars in an unlucky galaxy

ingested by a wormhole

These bit down fingernails hanging around my throat like a gaudy piece of costume jewelry

Whole memories of brimming love,

Our fingers camped alongside one another

Your square set nails and skin like nutmeg sprinkled onto a glass of frothed milk

When staring into your eyes, a still puddle reflecting a summer sky,

Didn’t cut me

Dancing because it all rose before us magnificently

The dog scratches his ear

Thudding the ground with his paw

I can hear crickets just outside the open window

To have and to hold

From this day forward

Hearts in context

I give you space when you’ve got mourning to do
Because when they say we’re through we’re rarely ever through.
I will never have all of you
Nor should I ever desire to.

Your heart has many doors
Your bloodstream never snores
You play rewind and pause
On the garments you once wore,
You bore

A Hole in my skull about six feet deep,
You’re hardly ever sleeping, weeping, peeping at pasts
That pull your feet out from under,

You plunder down down downtown
Monster mash you dash
Your gash seeping (never sleeping) You tumble through the bramble,
Scramble down past the eggs of your best interests.

You get dressed anyway, put on your face
(You know the one)
Pimple-free and twenty three
Or “twenty something.”

You try to forget their promises
The certainties
The “would you mind watching my bag please” while I slip out over the eaves
And now you carry it, both straps
And wherever TomDick&Suzie went
Brain lapse

They took more than your novel, your chapters
They took your pain, they took your laughter
They took the long evening stares, souls bared
Not a place on earth I’d rather be,
With you here under me
Whispering us to sleep:
It’s your past that they keep.

But may it rest and rest with dignity
For they may be gone but each trick or treat
Opened doors that led you to me,
Each fig plucked from your tree
Pruning your soul for a new fertility.

Forgive me, for this may not be your last station
I’ll lend you the coal and you go the distance.
If it’s with me I’m happy,
If not please forget me. Let me
Not tease your mind, let me not chain you here
For an anchor to your moor
Is like a locked and bolted door and

Agoraphobia doesn’t suit you well darling, keep smiling
Remember our smiles if you must but let the rest rust
Smiles tinged with tears
Beating down our busts but I trust you.

I trust that they’re gone
and I’m here, that that is fog
and this is clear.
That the sweet nothings whispered in my ears
That I’ll forget in the morning,
Past the muesli yawning
Meant absolutely everything.

Wishing away my life, one sleepless night at a time

Wishing away these shoestring years

The cold breath of winter gasping up through pencil-wide gaps in the floor

Breath like smoke puffs

While croaking heaters sit unplugged

Overgrown lawns and porridge for dinner

Budgets tighter than the waistband of my pre maternity jeans

Leaving angry red marks along all our happy places

Nowhere to call our own

Tired mouths growling in the dark about tax bills and the price of children’s shoes

Stretched pay checks that barely cover the groceries

All we’re really asking is

“Have we fucked all this up?”

Wishing away this youth

The sleep debt and the brain fog

These strawberry fingers, these shirts dipped in jam

In a cacophony of pre-dawn breakfasts

And 6 pm house arrest

A carousel of tight pegged clothes no bigger than my fore arm, pink leggings kicking in the wind

The parade of days all exactly the same

If only we could make it another week,

Another month,

Til next year

(Or is it the year after that?)

When our bank statements are filled and

The tiny fingers have grown

When hands are emptied to take hold of pencils and paintbrushes

Then will we spend the remainder of our lives staring into light spotted mirages

An album of frenzied, wished-away memories

Trying to close our arms around hot bodies that aren’t there anymore