I guess since I heard Sheila Heti ask, How Should a Person Be? in 2012, the question has been on my mind. I read it when I was depressed and living through a Canadian winter a long way from home. I was 20. The book changed the nature of my self-awareness. The ache inside myself was no longer an immovable weight but was something to be interrogated. How did I want to be? How did I want to function in the world? What did I need to do? I’ve looked at my time since then as a project of efficiency. My personhood is a set of tools that I can manipulate to almost infinite effects but at some level, my set of tools is my set of tools. There is a limit. So how do I use these tools most effectively? In what configuration do I get the most fulfillment from work, in what configuration do I produce the most meaningful writing, in what configuration do I treat my friends and family best, in what configuration am I the most worthy lover or partner? Even in considering myself as a human, there is something mechanical about the questions I ask of myself.
I sent a piece of writing to a friend recently for her opinion. She returned it and one of the first notes she had written in the margins was, ‘you could afford to use contractions’. I looked back through and realised I rarely contract in my writing, it is always ‘have not’, ‘there is’. I believe myself to be inarticulate verbally. Many writers feel this way. We write because we’re bad at talking. My writing tends to be slow. I sound out my ideas like a child might, pausing, repeating, returning, drawing out syllables. I need slowness in order to think something through to completion. I need time. I am bad at communicating in real life. I get flustered. I lose my place. I lose confidence in my own words and perspective. I worry I am boring people. I like to write because I know that my audience will feel no shame in leaving me, closing, and folding my words away when they want to. It feels equal. I write it in private, they read it in private, we’re not beholden to each other, really.
I recently read, Seasonal Associate by Heike Geissler. It was released in Germany in 2014 and recently translated into English. It is not a memoir, but it follows a freelance writer and translator who gets a job over the Christmas period working in online order fulfillment at the Amazon headquarters in Leipzig, a job Geissler performed for some time in 2010. The narration shifts between first and second person. We are the protagonist and ourselves and sometimes this is the same thing and sometimes it isn’t as we are consumed by and expelled from the narrative.
I work in a warehouse for an independent bookseller. In the mornings I sign in for work by placing my middle finger on a pad that scans my vein patterns and identifies me as me. I select ‘web fulfillment’ using the mouse cursor and then ‘start work’. I got this job over the Christmas period last year. Quickly, I noticed how often I seemed to be standing in the crevasse between human communication. There is the beauty of an author writing something and the reader devoting themselves to reading it. There is the generosity of customers buying gifts for the people they love. There is the sweetness of people buying books for themselves and requesting gift cards to bear their own message. Then there is me, standing in the middle of a fluorescent-lit warehouse, stray packing materials stuck to my shoes, making sure this beauty is delivered. There is the repetitive action of scanning books, placing them in a bin, taking them out of the bin, assigning a packing label. The environment is mechanical. But I watch the beauty pass by me quickly. The books people have chosen. The cards that I handwrite. I hope you love this as much as I did. Throughout each day there are the blooms of what makes humans not mechanical at all, which is thought.
There is an interaction in the book that I have been thinking about a lot. The book’s protagonist is involved in a disagreement at work. Someone stacks products precariously and she tells him to move it but he refuses. ‘I don’t get paid for long walks, he says, and leaves.’ The protagonist moves the product herself. She reorganises stacks so that they are neat and safe. After she finishes this task the colleague tells her that the product was part of a set. Having rearranged the stack, the various parts that make up the whole are now lost from each other.
‘You broke one product down into parts, and now no one can put it together again. You caused total chaos.’
The protagonist tells the colleague: ‘But if you saw that and knew it was wrong, you could have told me and then I wouldn’t have done it.’
He says: ‘There was no talking to you.’
‘Yes, there was, you think, and I agree with you, you’re easy enough to talk to. People always talk to you, no matter how you seem; you’re a receptive person, it’s just you’re not receptive to ignorance.’
The protagonist becomes overwhelmed with frustration and lies down.
As the boundaries between work and life are blurred, I find myself thinking about the people in my personal life as co-workers. I find myself interacting with friends, even strangers in public, and questioning the efficacy of our interactions. Recently I was walking in the middle of a footpath when a cyclist came quickly off the road towards me and I realised too late that he wasn’t coming up to park his bike. I didn’t move in time and as he got close he put his hand up, I thought to apologise, and I apologised back. I said, ‘Sorry mate, my bad.’ And he said gruffly, ‘You should have been walking on the left.’ I felt a flash of anger towards him. I had thought what happened was simply a mishap. I apologised on the understanding that we were both being gracious with each other. Why didn’t he understand that when cyclists do that handlebar wiggle it becomes impossible to know which way they’re going. I would have moved if I’d had time. If there was a bike path why was he on the sidewalk? At this point, he had ridden on and was far behind me. There was no telling him. There was no telling me. It was no longer important and yet I still felt (I thought) unjust shame.
These situations seem linked to time. Time moves past us and we can only see it as linear. It moves past us and it doesn’t return. We have an instant to make decisions and that instant is rarely enough to make the perfect choice. And if someone asks us to explain our choice, why did we communicate that way, why did we say that thing, or say it in that voice, or say it at that time, why didn’t we ask more questions, why didn’t we clarify? It can be hard to explain. ‘I don’t know, I was in a situation and I made a choice in an instant, and once that instant passed there were other instances and other choices to make, the wrong choice was long gone.’ And if we were to reply, ‘Why didn’t you tell me, why didn’t you instruct me clearly?’ they could only return the same, ‘I don’t know, it all happened so fast, my instinct didn’t compel me.’
So, when we have these mishaps with each other, is anyone at fault? Is it a moment that can be left behind? I will never see that cyclist again but in a mishap with a loved one, if we haven’t made the choice to hurt each other, if we make choices in a rapidly passing moment, is the interaction now insignificant? Or, if our instincts lead us to such an interaction, are we incompatible on some fundamental level? If we cannot make the correct decisions in the smallness of a moment, does the importance of a productive dynamic then shift to the aftermath? The commitment to learning each other, understanding each other, apologising and exerting an act on your own instincts, redirecting them. ‘Next time my instincts won’t lead me to this place with you.’ Is the interaction between Geissler’s protagonist and her co-worker a failure because we know it has left at least one person (the protagonist, ourselves) upset? Or is it a failure because it has slowed the productivity of the warehouse?
Seasonal Associate seems to deliberately distance itself from human interaction in order to reveal something new about the way we communicate. The most detailed descriptions in the book are of the excruciating order of Amazon’s processes, the long, dreary commute that depends on punctuality down to the minute in order to arrive for a shift, the size of the pallets to be packed, the length of the lunch break and where it is taken and what is eaten. The moments when this order breaks down, when things become imprecise, when humans needs to talk through mistakes, are the human moments that make sense of the order. When these processes break down, time slows and the capitalist system is overthrown. The humanity of the text is allowed a moment to breathe.
The book has left me to think about the fact that peak efficiency is anti-human. An effective human is not a human at all. To think of myself as an effective friend is to assign myself a colleague in my loved ones’ lives—how awful! To be stuck in a cycle of poor communication might be something to cherish. To express ideas is not a need I have but a want. I like to write. I am lucky to write. To confuse, to bore, frustrate; these are all valid ways a person can be. These are just a few of the infinite ways I will pass an instant in my lifetime.
Oliver Reeson is an essayist and screenwriter. They co-created and wrote Homecoming Queens, a web series commissioned by SBS about chronic illness in your 20s.