The Things We Live With
Publisher: Upswell Publishing
Published: October 2023
- Dr Gemma Nisbet is a West Australian writer.
- She also teaches, amongst other subjects, travel writing.
- This is because Gemma used to be a travel writer at The West Australian.
- The Things We Live With is her first collection of essays.
- It contains nine essays and a coda.
- Many are “braided” essays in which different threads are woven together.
- “Text” (n): from the Latin texere, meaning “to weave”.
- A braided essay is like a fugue in music.
- In psychiatry, a desire for travel is often symptomatic of a fugue state.
- Grief can trigger a desire for travel, for escape.
- “When my dad died, I was twenty and he was ten days away from turning fifty-eight. I have been trying to write about him, and how it has felt to grieve him, for nearly half my life,” writes Gemma.
- “One of the aspects of my experiences of depression and anxiety that I find most difficult to admit to… is the fact that, around the time I first began admitting I was ill and sought treatment, I was fairly certain I would be better within a year,” writes Gemma.
- “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell,” says Milton’s Satan.
- These juxtapositions are not intended to equate the inescapability of inner torment with grief, depression or anxiety.
- As Susan Sontag writes in Illness as Metaphor, “Depression is melancholy minus its charms – the animation, the fits.”
- But as any reader of Robert Burton’s dazzling, compendious Anatomy of Melancholy will know, depression is a necessary and sufficient condition of melancholy.
- “I had not anticipated the way grief could so quickly become an intimate encounter with stuff. Not just the matter – the ashes, the remains – that your loved one becomes, but also the things they leave behind,” writes Gemma.
- The Things We Live With bursts at the seams with “stuff”.
- Fridge magnets. Gemma’s baby teeth. A painting by Edward Sylvester Hynes. The contents of her grandfather’s suitcase. The contents of a stranger’s house (an Airbnb). A photograph of her father and grandfather. Phyllis Pearsall’s A-Z Street Atlas of London. Gemma’s mother’s prayer book. Shells. Pebbles. Joan Didion’s The White Album. Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness. Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. Susan Stewart’s On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection.
- Gemma tells me Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance was also a big influence on her approach to writing about illness.
- As I read Gemma’s essays, I think about the Japanese concept of mono no aware, “The pity of things”, and about the poignancy of ephemeral objects including words and essays.
- Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers flutters somewhere overhead.
- These beautiful essays are braided. But they are also fragmentary – the essay giveth and the essay taketh away. They attempt to corral chaos, to define the ineffable. But they also open up space for important conversations around grief, illness, identity, memory and the objects that tell our stories.