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They are beside me, in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, though I never look at them. Except, for the first time in fifteen years, that’s exactly what I’ve just done: got them out and spread them across the floorboards. Canberra Times headlines; front pages, to be precise.

The first is dated September 11, 2001. TERRORISTS STRIKE U.S.’ in the biggest, blackest letters I’ve ever seen in a newspaper. And that photo of a World Trade Centre tower collapsing in white smoke. And that other photo, of ash-covered New Yorkers scrambling for their lives.

What we keep: a reminder of the darkest days?

What we keep: a reminder of the darkest days?

The next front page, dated October 15, 2002, says ‘Terror Blast’. A photo of stretcher bearers carrying bodies out of a twisted Kuta Beach nightclub. The next is dated January 20, 2003: ‘Our worst day’. More twisted metal, but in a bushfire-blackened landscape. Then, at last, there is change.

November 25, 2007: ‘Rudd buries Howard era’. A fresh-faced new prime minister holds up his hands, ten fingers spread as if he’s giving himself ten out of ten. Only three months later, February 13 2008: ‘Sorry’ says the headline in big white letters, the faces of four elderly Indigenous men, three with grey beards, two wearing beanies, one with glisteningly red eyes. November 6, 2008: ‘American revolution: first black president; a David Pope cartoon of a beaming (and only slightly grey-haired) Barack Obama, a patched-up Uncle Sam slung over his shoulder. Before disaster strikes again. February 10 2009: ‘Dreams in ashes’, which wasn’t a reference to the United States but Victoria: more twisted metal, another bushfire-blackened landscape.

Yet all is not lost. June 25, 2010: ‘History in her hands. Look at Julia Gillard’s face looming large on the page, her eyes full of hope, and perhaps there’s a dash of relief too. December 7, 2013 and there’s a different face: ‘Nelson Mandela 1918-2013: ‘Our nation has lost its great son’’.

The most recent front page in this collection of headlines? March 21, 2015: ‘Malcolm Fraser, 1930-2015’. The former prime minister’s quoting of George Bernard Shaw: ‘Life’s not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.’ What exactly are we to make of this private archive of tragedy and triumph? Maybe, just maybe, these headlines are reminders that we live in a world that’s infinitely bigger – and much, much more fascinating – than our tiny little daily worries. And yes, every so often it can even be delightful.


(This was to be my 81st piece for the First Word column in the Canberra Times. Regrettably the column came to an end before it could be published, so here it is. Thanks to Gillian Lord, Natasha Rudra and Sally Pryor for allowing me to have such a long run with the paper.)

Maybe it’s because of the coming of the Silly Season but I’m thinking a lot about stillness at the moment.  By stillness I don’t mean sitting cross-legged on the loungeroom floor humming ‘omm’.  I mean a stillness that knocks us for a six.  A couple of weeks ago I found myself driving away in total silence from a lunch with a famous writer at his country home as opposed to always – always – having music playing.  I breathed deeply through my nostrils and watched the landscape on the other side of the windscreen.  I felt sure that at some stage I’d press the PLAY button on the car’s CD player, but I didn’t, not for the entire hour and half it took me to drive home.

I’d found stillness, or it had found me.

More recently I was putting in some plants in the back yard when I realised that I’d sat down on the mulch and was listening to talkback radio coming from next door.  It was a terribly narrow-minded shock-jock’s program; he was ‘discussing’ how Barack Obama was in great political difficulty.  But there I was, as motionless as a concrete garden gnome.  I’d found stillness, or it had found me.

Yesterday, I realised that I’d stopped walking through the loungeroom to watch The Old Lady of the House dreaming peacefully on her bed, a clucking sound coming from her mouth, a look of total contentment on her face.

We’d found stillness, or stillness had found us.

Why does stillness matter so much?  Yes, it might be due to the stampeding onslaught of the Silly Season, except I’ve experienced 41 of these by now so surely I can cope.  Or it could be that I’m just at an age where it’s customary to say ‘Heavens above, the world’s getting so fast these days’.  Or it could be that time really is speeding up.

As we all have to inevitably conclude, when we’re kids a week is an eternity, as teenagers a summer holiday is of similar length.  Now, however, as a middle-aged man an eternity is just not long enough, so a drive in the country without music is an anchor, a sit-down in the garden a deep connection to the earth, a pause to watch the dog sleep a tight grip onto something beautiful.  As we all career headlong into the Greatest Stillness Ever.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 18 December 2010.  Many thanks to those who commented on an earlier post, called ‘Where stillness is’ – the on-line discussion fed into the writing of the piece for the newspaper, which is rather lovely, wouldn’t you say.)

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The past