I AM SITTING in the autumn shade at the edge of our long driveway. We always stop here on the way back from one of our walks because my son, ten months old, likes to play with the pebbles. We live in the midst of the jarrah forest that skirts the eastern suburbs of Perth, and one of the characteristics of the area is the gravelly laterite soils that produce a carpet of marble-sized burnt-orange pebbles rich in iron and aluminium. We sit here, and the boy crawls about, picking up one warm orange marble, then another, turning them over in his hands, weighing them up. Sometimes I offer my open palm and he places a small pebble there and I comment on it, how heavy or how small, or how orange or how round. Sometimes he piles them into his mouth, a knowing glint in his eye, mindful but defiant of my continued warnings about the threat of choking. But this is not a time for tension or dispute. I lean back. The sun has that subtle April warmth that makes you want to soak it up and there are red-capped robins flittering above us in the trees. The traffic on the main road is sparse and distant. After a while, the boy moves on, crawling up the steps, or else he is taken by a nearby bowl of water, dipping his hands in, shaking them about, calling out a small song of wonder. He and I have nowhere else to be, nothing else to do and I am grateful for that, but also, somehow, a little unsettled. We glimpse a fragile sort of joy here: bright and fleeting. It is one of the many aspects of this early relationship of ours that draws us together, imbricates one with the other. We drift together in play. Time falls away.
Before the child arrived, I used to wake fully rested each morning and know fairly quickly my tasks or goals for the day. I was always working at something. In the field of writing, where much of my attention has been focused during the past two decades, the endpoint was always a publication-ready work. Or alternatively, as a student or teacher, it was ‘turning it in’ or grading student work, and moving on. Either way, no matter how sidetracked I became by matters of process, my days were organised by a model based on plans, objectives, outcomes. At the university where I have worked for more than a decade the whole year is mapped out by schedules of one kind or another, and your performance as a worker is constantly, almost neurotically, subject to measurement. Models and objectives provide structure and a sense of purpose. Applied collectively and on a much bigger scale, this kind of system is largely responsible for civil obedience in countries like Australia. But what happens when the capacity to maintain order or achieve outcomes is eroded?
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