Amanda and David are writers. Amanda is 20. David is 55.
The futures they grew up with might have been different. But some issues, it turns out, they have in common.
Amanda: Catastrophe. Even the word itself seems to explode in your mouth. All those strong consonants. You think ‘catastrophe’ and you think bombs, guns, war.
You might even think of the future.
David: I would like to say the future evokes curiosity and wonder. I would be prepared to write that out a hundred times if I could make it so. My default answer, however, the most fashionable one these days, is grief. Let’s mix in despair.
My friend bought me a grow-your-own-plant kit for Christmas last year from one of those artistic gift shops in the middle of Chadstone. It had bright green ‘paper soil’ that could hold up to two (or maybe ten—I forget) times the amount of water as normal soil. All I needed to do was soak it once, then spray it with water twice a day.
I take for granted looking at this screen, typing these soft words, how they appear, how the machine corrects my spelling errors spolling not that one. That crinkly red underlining: spolling. spolling.
Paper soil—how innovative, I thought. How strange that we might one day slaughter a tree, turn it into paper, and use it to grow a new tree.
I can’t tell whether that’s elegantly cyclical or just stagnant.
When I was little my mother ran a computer—or ran computations on a university computer. It was as big as a small library, you could walk between its aisles. It had paper punch cards. The holes in the paper told the computer what to do. Computers were always laughably slow back then. Even now they have become ridiculously fast it is still their stupidity we tend to notice. Their glitches and their spinning bowling balls.
I use a menstrual cup. They’re supposedly very good for the environment, reducing landfill from pads and tampons. But mostly, I use it because it makes my periods easier to deal with. I’m helping the environment under the guise of helping my own life—because even though I breathe the trees’ oxygen and drink the sun’s light, it feels like I live my life on a different plane.
I’m pretty sure the universe is still expanding, but I’m not sure if it’s expanding in the direction of outer space, or moving outwards from outer space which, if so, should really be called inner space if we weren’t so self-centred.
When I was in primary school, the grade fours hosted a festival about ways to save the environment, from having shorter showers to using reusable containers.
I know the natural world, the tectonic plates and the fossil fuels and the melting icecaps, are somewhere. But they are distant in the way the future is distant—untouchable yet right in front of me. Neither of them feels real. I touch the surface of my desk and I know it’s made of wood and it was once a tree which was once just a sprout which was once a seed, but still, I’m just touching a desk.
I’ve had a thought. I’m thinking it would be good if you could blink at me and I would know all of Shakespeare’s plays. If they were just there inside me, like I was a database, and I could go visit any corner of one of the histories or comedies (I prefer the comedies) and have the verses riffle through me. Like, in-breath, whatever that scene is with Jacques under the tree, out-breath, jump straight to a dance, hey-holly-ho, in Twelfth Night. Not that I’m particularly obsessed with Shakespeare, but it’s that idea. Would that save trees? Would that connect us? Would that help fend off the catastrophes?
Perhaps catastrophe is what happens when you realise your paper soil plant needed twenty sprays instead of two during the heatwave and now it’ll never grow.
Perhaps catastrophe is what occurs in our peripheral vision, while we worry about circles of metal and rectangles of plastic.
Perhaps catastrophe is the apathy we grow like a second skin, like mould, because the world is dying every day but I can’t feel/see/touch it yet so it can wait until tomorrow because assignments are due today.
When you see what violence and cruelty and greed humans are capable of, and when you think that you yourself might be a beneficiary of such actions at a respectable three or four removes (and this is assuming you keep your own violence and cruelty and greed pretty much under control), you can get to grief pretty quickly.
That same friend took me to Bunnings to shop for paint for her new house, yet our wandering led us to the discounted plants. Plants on the verge of death, leaves brown and succulents shrivelled.
‘It’s not worth it,’ I said. ‘You can pay $2 more and get a fresh one.’
‘That’s not the point, Amanda. The point is that I can save these ones. There’s still hope.’
Also: if the universe is expanding away from outer space then what could it be expanding towards? Somewhere kind-of behind our backs in all directions of a space-time vortex? Somewhere that as soon as we turn around it is no longer a vector in that direction?
Maybe one day aliens will come and say (about us) we’ve had a good try at it but really what were we thinking?
‘You know you haven’t actually moved into your house yet, right?’
‘I know. But I’ve never had plants before. I want them now. I want to be a plant mother.’
When I envision a household in 2050 I can’t help but envisage a household in 1950. I think the 1950s and 1960s were the heyday of the future. That was back when the future really had a future. The atom had been split, a man would walk on the moon, there was no limit, or so the culture felt. Or so a culture felt. A culture that felt like it was the culture.
My closest friends don’t believe in astrology. I know it’s a pseudo-science. But I just like the act of believing. It makes the universe make a little more magical.
I am an air sign—kind of detached and cerebrally oriented. I write this and realise the irony of the situation. I feel more connected to the planets that determine the elements of the astrological signs, than the elements themselves as they appear on Earth.
Outer space will be there, in the future. Although the more outer it gets, the more in the past it is, right? Isn’t that how it works with the speed of light and so on? So maybe technically outer space has absolutely no future, poor thing.
Sometimes I feel a bit like an alien.
I guess outer space was probably more of a ‘60s thing.
Will my children—ETA ~10 years—feel like aliens too? Or more like computers? Will their catastrophes look like my catastrophes?
The future is like a box of dress-ups. And emotions; I feel like that’s a matter of rehearsing. If I say I am going to a healer, rather than I am going to a therapist, and if I admit that the coaching of my healer is influencing my answers, does that make them any less valid? My therapist—Okay, we can call him that too—says curiosity and wonder is one of the better states to aim for. Okay, it is corny, maybe, or embarrassing, but maybe the future will be corny and embarrassing, as well as curious and wonderful, amidst the days of grief.
Perhaps catastrophe isn’t a monster. Or maybe it is—but a pet monster. One we can adopt and care for and domesticate so it doesn’t grow up to be like its civilisation-ruining parents.
Maybe we’ll name it Spolling.
Perhaps in the future the computer will accept that spolling is a word.
This story is part of the Future Stories project with RMIT’s non/fictionLab and creative writing program, which paired writing students with academics to produce creative responses to themes explored during Melbourne Knowledge Week 2019. Come along to Chorus of voices on Thursday 23 May, 10am to 11am to hear from the students and staff involved in the project.