It’s a dark, dingy night in the city of western Sydney. Muscle cars cruise the street with drivers with haircuts looking like the rear end of a horse. Not where you would expect to find a poetry slam, actually, come to think of it, it’s got slam all over it: fast, furious and then it’s all over—too bad if someone’s sensitivities have just been trampled into the dirt.
So here we are, upstairs with standing room only, the hat being assed around if you want to put your name in and throw word-javelins into the sky or maybe a few word-flowers too. The smiles on faces having that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest look about them, somehow excited, happy and a bit loopy. Loopy works well at slams, it’s one the reasons I’ve come.
While we wait for the show to get started I find myself in a conversation with a young guy who looks like he’s out for a bit of fun. The topic moves from this place, to some other place, to life in general. In the middle of the flow, what can only be described as a ‘conversation-stabbing-ghost voice’, makes an announcement through his lips.
‘If you haven’t got your health you’ve got nothing have you,’ he says.
‘I’m not sure I agree,’ I say.
‘What do you mean?’ he says.
‘My mum for example, she had Motor Neurone disease. “Nothing to live for” you might say, but she gave me so much. She still shines like a candle for me.’
There’s a long silence. In the darkened room around us, laughter and jokes fly thick and fast, like bats, and I stand there with my drink in the eye of the storm, wondering what’s going to happen.
‘You’re right,’ he says.
Something melts, even melts away and the two of us spend the rest of the night talking—so much so that he won’t stay away from me. He wants to talk about faith and hope and love, and confesses to me that this was the night he was going to throw it all away, to abandon faith and drink the cup of meaninglessness.
We talk and talk. I get my turn on the stage along with a dozen or so other poets, our voices ranging from hate, to heavy metal, to some more like country music, em n’ em, folk, and a few amazing voices that seem to come straight out of heaven. The audience gets a treat and we all laugh a lot. The night is over now and my friend tells me how grateful he is and wants me to pray a prayer for him. We go our separate ways.
From that day till now I’ve found myself in countless conversations where those conversation—stabbing ghost voices rise up out of the flow like nasty little eels, especially insinuating themselves when things are getting intimate and genuine. It makes you wonder if something deep in our broken-ness starts to panic when we get close to the real, and automatically releases one of these just to keep things familiar.
Even the shape of the ‘blurt’ is kind of weird: beginning by sounding like an announcement but ending as a question, as if you’re being invited to hear them out—but while you’re not looking the script changes. The other person plays on your sense of courtesy, using the polite, agreeable context to blackmail you into agreeing with their statement, even implicating you in their lie.
The examples are countless: ‘If you haven’t got your health you’ve got nothing have you.’ ‘After all you only get one life don’t you.’ ‘Shit happens eh!’ ‘If it’s meant to happen it will eh!’ ‘If God wants it to happen it will eh!’ ‘We’re all whores it’s just that we have different price tags eh.’
Don’t let them get away with it. The only proper response is an instantaneous ‘head-shot on the run’. Something like, ‘Can I ask you a question?’, ‘What do you mean by that?’, ‘Where did you get that idea?’, ‘I don’t know about that’, ‘So what are you trying to say?’, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t agree at all.’ ‘I beg to differ.’ My favourite is ‘Can I ask you a question?’ Once I had to repeat my question three time loudly before the other guy would stop and ask me what it was.
Bosses, wounded people looking for affirmation, and older people with younger people, do it all the time because they assume deference but assumed-deference is a cheap liberty being taken. You and I probably do it to people too by the way. As a man of faith I have had to apologise numerous times for jumping on my own personal conversation motor bike and just not listening.
You will already know at least someone in your world who does it all the time. But beware, we are all in trouble when we attempt to love others. George MacDonald said the first thing the ‘lover of others’ must try to do is to figure out how not to do them harm.