Life changes in the instant

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it changes.”

— Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

I first read these words in 2017. They come from a beautiful little book called The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, which accounts Didion’s notes on grief after the death of her husband. I picked this book up for my course readings. It was one of several texts we could choose to analyse — an obvious selection for me, who used it as an excuse to read about grief to deal with my own.

At the time I was navigating my first big relationship break up, first year of university — and if I had to pin one book as the most insightful during that time of sorrow and torment, I would pin Magical Thinking. The ‘life changes in the instant’ line has never left my memory, coming back to me any time some major change happened in my life.

Life has thrown some major curveballs at me these last few months, hence why you haven’t heard much from me.

The worst of these curveballs was the death of my grandfather, Tony. It didn’t come as a surprise that he was in hospital, that his body was failing and his mind, already beyond repair, was not long left for this world. I managed to say my goodbyes to him in hospital a few days before he passed. My dad called at 5am to tell me he was gone, and it hardly rocked me. I was at work 4 hours later, pretending nothing had happened — because I had just started a new job and it was a good distraction. Days later I was numb and scattered, unable to form any clear conclusions, incapable of processing this big shift in my life because now I could say I had lost a grandparent.

I finally broke down at the funeral, where I was supposed to read a eulogy but I told my cousins I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I carried the coffin alongside my father and various uncles, through the church and into the hearse. I dropped a typewritten poem into the hole that he will rest in forever. And then I processed it. The ritual was over and I could let go. I still think about him every day, the good and the bad, but at least it isn’t holding me back from the present.

Another curveball that rushed up to me out of nowhere was the new job I just mentioned. I’d worked in the same dodgy bookshop — a dodgy company with awful management and humiliating practices — for close to five years. Being stubborn, I refused to move on to a new job until I could find another bookshop to work in that could offer me a stable income. I went through countless interviews and selection processes, always ending in rejection, and suffered through months of not being able to afford groceries. as well as crippling debt, wasting hours on the train to and from what I already considered ‘my old job’ until the next opportunity arose. Maybe my suffering was my own fault, since beggars can’t be choosers. Any old job could’ve put food on the table.

In fact, I had reached breaking point and was ready to apply for any job I could find — but finally, I received a sudden email from one of the bookstores I’d applied for months earlier. It happened to be the largest book retailer in the state, right in the heart of Melbourne city. I swept through the interview and, to my relief, got the job. I like to see it as the universe offering me recompense. Reimbursement for taking my grandfather away — let me take something away from you and give you something else instead.

I landed my dream job. I could finally pay my rent without chewing my nails down to the bone, could pay off my various debts, could even afford to buy lunch without feeling guilty. No more pale, hungry-bellied me.

And then there’s the assault, another one of those life-changing instances.

I had just finished work and was leaning on a steel bench on Collins Street when a young man — ice-addled, pinprick pupils, bloodshot, twitchy, scabby, skeletal — asked me for a lighter, which ended with me back-smacking the pavement from his forceful shove. He was gone a moment later. I can hardly remember what he looks like now, except for the hateful evil in his eyes. But I remember what he did every time my tailbone aches and when my chest surges with anxious flutters whenever I pass that steel bench on Collins Street. I remember his words, the whine of his voice, the very instant I knew in my heart that he was about to strike me down.

At home I laid silent in fear and trembling, staring at the wall, reliving the moment over and over in my mind until I forgot that it had ended hours earlier. I sat there hating myself for doing nothing, for not reacting when he threw me to the concrete, for shutting off instead of waking up from the adrenaline.

The reason this one was such a curveball was that I am a diagnosed paranoid and have envisioned this very scenario (as well as worse ones) a thousand times over, always in my mind, always brought on for seemingly no purpose except to make me wary and suspicious of the outside. I have always been a nervous recluse — until these last eighteen months, when I came out of my shell by confronting my fear of the world, by simply observing it and then writing about it. This random assault on the street pulled me right back to where I started: deeply mistrustful and jittery. I could no longer have trust in the streets, and for a street writer, that is a shattering realisation. Questioning your identity is never easy, and these last few weeks have been hell.

But I managed, somehow, to pull myself out of it, to regain trust in the streets, weighing the good with the bad, seeing the beauty of strangers juxtaposed against a grimy concrete jungle. Within weeks I felt like myself again. But I was reminded that just because I’ve been lucky with the streets, that doesn’t mean there isn’t bad out there.

Err on the side of caution always, but remember to have some fun along the way.

If these curveballs of life changing in the instant have taught me anything it’s that I am mortal, but with enough drive I am indestructible.

So this is where I have been. I’ve been dealing with some shit, and deal with it I certainly have. I don’t let things fester and destroy me from within anymore, I confront the things bothering me until they can no longer obstruct me moving forward. I still have Didion to thank for helping me through the hard times.

I’m back now, thankfully, with more poetry and a few surprises around the corner, so look out! Big things are coming.

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A Street Poet's Diary

A Street Poet's Diary

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jaidyn the street poet — author of There’s a Tale to This City & The Street Poet