After my column was printed last week I put the longer version up on my website, went to bed, and the next morning woke up to find discussion had kicked off while I was sleeping. It’s the column equivalent of waking up after a party to find strange people crashed out in your lounge. Over the next three days the response to the column gathered such a tornado around it that I had to stop looking at my phone because it was making me go blinky.
The column was about how common female assault is. It was my two-penneth on Trump and the Not Okay campaign that has been taking the world by storm. I knew from experience that venturing admissions about your own life, especially things you normally keep quiet, often whips up debate, but I was not quite expecting my whole week to turn to the reading of and replying to countless women who saw my small contribution on the subject as a chance to share their own experiences. Writing a column is an honour at any time, but at times like this it can be positively dizzying. People give you a part of their lives, and you care for that small precious part with that slightly clammy anxiety you reserve for when you hold someone’s baby or look after their pet.
Mostly the response was loving and supportive. But there was the odd unhelpful contribution from contrary corners. There were a few men who tried to write jokey responses which landed like a wet towel on a tile floor, but most of the time it’s easier just to be gracious about their intent than it is to be grumpy that they should have just tried harder to articulate what they actually felt. You wish they knew their words are as important as any.
I spent a long time talking one evening to one of my dearest friends who had ventured onto Facebook to politely tell someone that she thought he was mansplaining my own column to me. He had taken offence, and a woman had defended him in language I would not have expected towards another woman on a subject such as assault. It got a bit ugly. I read it late one night with a glass of wine after talking to my friend, and though I felt savage that she was hurt, I dutifully spent a good while afterwards writing a diplomatic reply to all who had got caught up in the back-and-forth that was largely pointless given we were all agreeing on the same point; sexual assault is wrong.
I am always stunned to see how many people are so quick to lash out at people online. I usually bite my lip and observe and in my head is a furious dance of baffled thoughts that when distilled into sense sounds like “If you were outwardly nicer, you would be so much happier. Stop being such a horrible drag; there is so much more in you; and you have way more control over things than you think.”
Don’t fight the internet, my friend said wearily, a bit bruised. You will never win. I wanted to say I would never try. Sometimes I can’t even fight my way into a jar of gherkins, I’m hardly going to prevail against the worldwide web. It’s bloody massive, unlike a jar of gherkins (apart from those ones from Aldi; they’re ridiculous. You could gestate a baby to fullterm in those and still have room for all the gherkins of the world.) You want to unscrew the internet, you’re going to have to develop other nifty moves besides a solid leftward rotation. You’re going to have to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, and a thousand other cognitive contortionist word bends besides. And you will still fail. Because the internet is still the internet. And people are still just people.
As the gust around the column died down to a breeze, a few leaves continued to blow in from different corners. Friends who had just read it, sending love or support or the kind of “Fuck yeah, sister, right on” that makes you feel like it’s the seventies and your bum looks good in flares.
A friend on the other side of the world then wrote to say she’d liked the piece, and that resulted in us not talking about any of the issues in the column, but in catching up on other things. Life. She is one of the best humans I know, I don’t see her nearly enough. She had just written a piece for the Guardian on Art that made me laugh and think, and told me she is turning the inside of her shed into a replica of a chapel in Padua because the chapel is so beautiful, and also because, why not. I asked her which chapel, as though I knew anything about any of the chapels in Padua. Cue an accompanying photo of a domed chapel ceiling of the most brilliant blue – a shade she’d have a better name for – all stuck over with gold stars and sloping down into the usual array of fucked up be-robed beautiful martyrs I’ve never heard of but that she could bring to life with historical anecdotes; her wit is the scrubbed-up gilt on faded art. With one fired out little picture on my phone I loved her a little more.
We talked in that stretched out way you do, typing a reply then coming back moments later to see those flashing ellipses, letting you know the other person is typing. Is there a nicer modern feeling than seeing someone you like is typing, knowing that soon you will be able to read their reply, and while you are waiting you have that warm glow of knowing that whatever they say will make you smile. That they’re not total dicks who will blindside you with buffoonery. You trust in the joy of them being them, whatever their mood.
And so a week of word torrents quietened down to my friend telling me about her first batch of sweet peas in Melbourne while I hung out my washing and hoped it wouldn’t rain, imagining the smell of her real flowers alongside the fake orchid fragrance of my fresh bedsheets. Holding her beside me in my palm, that ambidextrous living we have evolved to accommodate the appendage of our phones, this transglobal togetherness we are now so casual about. Our chat sprawled over hours; I bookended her sleep, she bookended my day. Pictures of flowers and dogs and paintings (hers) and silly gifs (mine) and quietly ventured thoughts. A youtube clip of a beautiful song that stilled me to silence acted as a perfect epilogue. A casual cheerio til next time. The internet had been used as a pallet, a picture book, a toy box, a jukebox, a photo album, and as written notes that would have otherwise taken weeks to pass between us without the speed of the ether. It was a good bit of internetting. It was satisfying, illuminating, funny, warm, with no agenda but its own simplicity, and it made my heart bounce.
Sometimes when you run from the jungle, there are tendrils that wind their way to find you out in the clearing. Sometimes the internet can make you cry with its overwhelming too-big power, and sometimes it allows you to see sweet peas in a friend’s garden on the other side of the world.