The last time I dared to be spontaneous, I walked out of a tattoo parlour at half past one in the morning with gladwrap enveloping my left bicep, and a bandana tied around my neck. The adrenaline wore off by morning and I came forward to my mum the next day in a sheepish fashion. She cried.

My friend C commits to getting her hair touched up every two months so that the roots can be placated by dyeing them to match the rest of her. People make promises to catch-up, and these social exchanges function as bookends, marking out the stretch of time from this event to the next. Time is present and interminable. We go about our daily lives, propelled by commitments.

How time has the ability to weave in and out of life! Narrowly it escapes our grasp, only to plant itself back when threats of deadlines or upcoming events emerge. And then, the arrowhead of spontaneity raises its head, provoked by a fear of inadequacy and action.  Sometimes I feel as if I am a human-sized hourglass filled with the smallest grains of sand, that I have been turned over and over.

The Sunday paper arrives with a soft crunch, falling onto the freshly mowed lawn, morning dew forming on the edges. The paper is coloured with noisy headlines and large photographs. The words ‘spotted in x location’ neatly packaged at the bottom in smaller font. Papers tend to do that. This is the newsprint version of clickbait. Millennial angst, highlighted in the back section alongside the celebrity goss, the body and soul pull-out, the latest diet and health ‘fitness’  routine.

On the front page: the government’s hesitancy to pull back from their latest carbon emission scheme; the mass death of animals in last summer’s bushfires. A few casual flips later, a full spread with shots of firefighters and volunteers struggling to extinguish the onslaught of heat coming towards them. A photograph of a family of six sat on the wooden planks at the front of their now-charred home is placed beside the last few sentences of the article, defeat worn on their faces.

There is a guilty pleasure in making time the scapegoat for all the things we are unable to do within the bounds of a certain duration. It’s easy enough to bottle this up and let our problems age for an indeterminate amount of years, like a fine wine. And yet, the not-so-distant-future awaits us, just around the corner, really, and yet we keep browsing the news.

I live for unplanned moments of perfect cinema: scribbling half-drunk thoughts on a coaster, my mother using a hackneyed idiom to retell one of her many anecdotes. I’ve seen this reel before. In retrospect, the time always passed quickly. We continue to put things off. How, I wonder, will this affect our ability to choose between: saving our planet and saving ourselves.  

Amidst the beauty of impromptu exchanges, the reckoning with time.

We take assiduous care with how we present ourselves, in submitting to the trials of being known by friends or passing strangers. There in the whirlwind of images we encounter, somewhere there is expressed the urgency of the environmental issues that threaten our existence. As we tap our screens, digesting highlights and stories, scrolling away, 20-something-year-olds like me, stuck in the threshold between Millennial and Generation Z, share a heightened sense of urgency. We are allowed small glimpses into the lives of others: landscape photographs, the occasional portrait taken at a fine-dining restaurant, protesting for environmental activism, union strikes for teachers.

I remember the first time I ever really engaged with social media. I did so by going against my mother’s wishes and creating a Facebook account shortly after she had given me my first personal phone. Age thirteen and a half, with this entrusted sense of responsibility and a newfound edge of boldness, I had decided to hop on the trend because I had wanted to be let into this alleged exclusivity. I took to sharing an array of quotes and screenshots from my favourite television shows. It was analogous to holding up a large sign acknowledging my existence.

My morning routine now involves a bowl of cereal and scrolling through my Instagram feed.  On this particular occasion, the feed is peppered with calls to action by celebrities I follow, encouraging their followers to register to vote for the upcoming US election. The suggested posts are all of the same sentiment. Is it me or is it them? Only the algorithm knows.

Somewhere in between the appeals to register for the election, and the array of memes cultivating our own hybrid-millennial/gen-z humour, comes a post with a declarative stance on climate change. Artists Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd have presented a digital clock in the heart of Union Square, which measures the time we have left before the effects of global warming and climate change become irreversible. The clock has just over seven years to go.

Many artists have responded to the rising vulnerability of extreme weather changes, rising sea-levels and longer droughts through visceral art productions and installations that seek to connect with our hybrid generation, perhaps over breakfast. In 2014, Danish-Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson, and his colleague Minik Rosing transported blocks of glacial ice from a Greenland fjord to London, setting up an installation known as ‘Ice Watch’ in response to the swift melting of the ice caps in the Arctic. Their goal was to create an encounter that would raise awareness through a tangible experience, through the discordance of large chunks of ice appearing in an urban environment.

A friend, S, who I haven’t seen in a while catches a glimpse of my tattoo when the short sleeve of my shirt rides up as we pull away from our hug. They ask me to show it to them, and I mention I got it on the night of Mardi Gras, arriving home with six hours before I had to clock into work. I remember both instances well. We take two events and put them together to describe the passing of time. S wants to get a tattoo but is haunted by the thought that one day they won’t like it as much anymore. We chat about the incongruity of life and determine that there is a soft beauty that lies in the permanent inking of one’s skin with words, squiggles, drawings; anything of meaning to us.

In this pocket universe, time is unwavering and inescapable. The paper is printed daily, the waste collectors drive round neighbourhood streets picking up rubbish weekly, and trains are patiently waiting to deliver their passengers from one end of the line to the other at every given moment.

The television downstairs springs to life, the evening news reporter relaying updates as a montage of videos appears on screen. A motorcycle accident on the highway has left three dead, students suffering pandemic isolation are experiencing mental health problems, the parties disagree about climate policy, or some of it.

The phone rings. A family member from Vietnam is on the other end of the call. Conversation begins. My mother nods, asking how they’ve been, in between bites of an apple. They chat about work, family and the weather as the now-muted television continues to emit more news. The lights bounce against the walls. An hour passes and now there’s an eighties drama silently showing. My mother motions for me to turn the television off, chuckling into the telephone, nodding along to the conversation, mouthing ‘goodnight’ to me.

This essay was commissioned for Symbiosis, the 2020 Bankstown Biennale. The Sydney Review of Books is delighted to be partnering with the Bankstown Arts Centre to showcase the work of three emerging Western Sydney writers: Nadia Hirst, Christine Lai and Martyn Reyes. Find out more about the Biennale here and read all the Symbiosis essays here.

Published October 9, 2020
Part of Symbiosis: The SRB has partnered with the Bankstown Arts Centre to showcase the work of emerging Western Sydney writers as part of Symbiosis: Bankstown Biennale 2020. All Symbiosis essays →
Christine Lai

Christine Lai is a writer, photographer and poet who has an avid fascination for...

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