A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and an award-winning podcast

A national LGBTQI+ storytelling project curated by Maeve Marsden
featuring a book, event series and award-winning podcast

345 Sophie Cunningham – Getting Old is A Real Trip

Approaching 60, and reckoning with family histories, physical stuff, and the world at large, Sophie makes a list.

Sophie Cunningham is the author of nine books, including the novel This Devastating Fever and the essay collection City of Trees. She is also a teacher, mentor, climate change activist and every day she posts an image of a tree on her Instagram @sophtreeofday. Sophie is the Chair of the Australian Society of Authors and an executive director of the Copyright Agency. She performed this story at Sydney Writers Festival.


Maeve: Hi, I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories. This week, Sophie Cunningham is the author of nine books, including the novel This Devastating Fever and the essay collection City of Trees. She is also a teacher, mentor, climate change activist and every day she posts an image of a tree on her Instagram @sophtreeofday. Sophie is the Chair of the Australian Society of Authors and an executive director of the Copyright Agency. She performed this story at Sydney Writers Festival.

Sophie: It’s pretty wonderful to be part of tonight, every speaker has just been really wonderful.

It’s a strange thing to reach the age your parents were when they first suffered from the vagaries of aging, or perhaps I just mean the vagaries of being alive. Because they weren’t significantly older than me, they were only about 20 years older than me, I hadn’t seen it coming. Not that that would have changed anything, but the point is that all three of my parents had serious health problems by the time they were in their mid to late 50s. Frontal lobe dementia, parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis. A fourth relative, a beloved aunt, got Louis body’s dementia. Both my fathers and my aunt were dead, you know, around their mid 60s and only my mum’s still with us. Then, a few years later, I hit my 50s. I turned 58 in 2021 and that was a fucker of a year. For all of us. 

In Mount Macedon, where I was living, we had our own particular iteration of weirdness, as well as COVID and blah, blah, blah… I don’t even want to talk about that shit show that those years were, there were massive storms that ripped trees up all through the area. In fact, an olive tree fell on our bedroom window and no serious damage was caused at all, but it really ratcheted up my wind phobia. Serves me right for writing a book about a cyclone a few years ago, but my developing phobia was not helped by an incident in Iceland back in 2018. The wind is so wild in that country that expected wind gusts to have posted in real time by the side of the road along with amber, red and green lights. Because I was heading to a conference, I drove on an amber morning and there was a moment when the wind came up under the car literally and lifted it off the road and then dropped us back on the road. I weed myself almost, and I was reminded from one of the quotes from my book about Cyclone Tracy, in which a really old woman talked about crocheting through the cyclone, but then it got to a point at about 1 am on Christmas morning, this is Darwin 1974, she said “it was like a giant running his hands down the side of the house and going brrrrrrrrrrr, and you could feel the shudder of the wind going.” Anyway, I digress, I always do. 

So, 58, 2021. On the plus side, my wife and I did a week long walk down the coast of south-west Australia in a miraculous moment between lockdowns. When sconce back at Mount Massadon, we saw Venus scintillating in the sky. There was a blood moon, a meteor shower. I finished a novel. On the minus side, covid endless lockdowns, storms and an earthquake. Seriously, a fucking earthquake? In central Victoria. Who knew even we got earthquakes in Victoria? I did not know that we got earthquakes in Victoria. Another segue my only experience of earthquakes before that had been in California when I, acting on advice, organised an earthquake kit filled by a tote bag with a water bottle, a photocopy of my passport, a garbage bag for wearing, a pair of thongs and some underpants. And I actually remember this from the Cyclone Tracy book, I did say that the main advice that I would offer people is always have good footwear close by during a disaster. Anyway, I was thrown out of bed by an earthquake once when I lived there, but I never did need to use the kit and its indication of what a shit year it was that the earthquake in central Victoria was actually fun. Fun if somewhat portentous, as if we needed any more portent. 

Anyway, it’s very cold in Mount Macedon and the potbelly stove played up and micro bats slipped into the house at night and our pandemic kittens chased them around the room until they fell exhausted. My wife and I, we too were exhausted. I woke up one night in the middle of such a night and found myself looking into the eyes of a fox. Extraordinarily beautiful, a lucid dream. On a second night the trees were silhouetted against the wall, waving wildly in the wind, with the full moon behind them. The only thing was the shutters were closed and there was no light in the room. On a third night I woke up to the smell of vomit permeating everything. I checked my wife she was fine. She was sound asleep, same with the cats. It was another kind of lucidity. I was having olfactory hallucinations.

This phase of who knows what the fuck was going on got worse. I started hallucinating during the day. Well, smelling weird things. The smell of rotting meat permeated everything. It was that or rotting citrus. I tried to fight off memories of my aunt telling me about her crazy dreaming life, of my stepdad’s vivid dream before his diagnosis. I went onto Google and you’ve all been told this, but I’m going to repeat it. Do not go onto Google for medical advice… ever! Physical stuff started happening. My knee was weird. My leg gave way a couple of times. It was probably just a result of the long walk in West Australia, but still not great. I broke up out in hives. I never did get COVID. I saw doctors and one of them was seriously concerned. I was seriously concerned. I became convinced that my fate had been sealed by genetics of conception. Suffice to say that I had several tests and was pronounced fine. If I had a problem with the stress and anxiety it had sent me mad. I gave up coffee, I gave up alcohol, I went to the gym. Lockdowns ended, cured. 

This is a very long-winded way of saying that, come my 60th year, a year which I mark in full health, I realised a celebration was in order. I wanted more joy in my life, or perhaps what I mean is I wanted to get back to the joy that came easy to me when I was young. I wanted to take more drugs, not less of them. I wanted to get the tattoo. Well, it means some of you have already seen the tattoo. I did that, like last week. I’ve been threatening for 30 years to get a tattoo. I’m pleased that in the 90s I was talked out of getting “Om mani padre hum”, in Tibetan letters down my arm. That was a good call. Thank you, people who talked me out of that, but I’m happy with the tree. I wanted to dance more. I just wanted to, you know, see this as the start of a new phase of life. 

So I started to work on a list of what helped me live life to the full. I wanted to offset my tendency towards pessimism. That pessimism has not been encouraged by professional focus on climate change and the fact that I’ve been attempting to make a living for the last 20 years as a writer of literary fiction and non-fiction. A fool’s errand. The first thing on my list was to take acid. Something I’ve been scared to do because I’d had a lassy spiked back in 1985 or so and then ended up lying in a hotel room in Jaisalmere seeing skeletons come out of the walls of an ancient fort. Not a great start, but the time had come to let go of the past. I read Michael Pollan, of course. I talked to a friend who had done guided trips. 

Then I discussed the idea of acid extremely earnestly with a local cafe owner who I was sort of going on some detail about my anxieties about this and he just said “chill the fuck out.” And he reached into his pocket and he gave me a tab and he said you take half, your wife can take the other half, she can keep an eye on you, make sure you’ve got 12 hours, go. I did not go at that moment. That was too much for me. But, you know, it took a few weeks, I have to be honest to find 12 hours when I wasn’t going to be having dinner with mum that night or any other complication. And even then, unable to abandon my earnestness, my wife and I set our alarm early on a Sunday morning so we could be in bed on time to start the week and we walked up to Royal Park in Melbourne so we could watch the dawn as the acid came on. It was a summer morning and this was a really nice thing to do. But it was after sunrise that things became really interesting. 

I’ve written quite a lot about Royal Park and its history, so it’s not surprising that I had glimpses of its deep pre-invasion past. Well, I imagined that I did, and that was pretty extraordinary. But I became fixated on an old sugar gum. It was breathing, its trunk expanded and contracted and it had spotty, scarred bark and the bark turned into mouths that opened and closed and I was thinking to myself “you’re an old tree… and a wise one.” Anyway, at a certain point we became worried we would get sunburned. And on the way out of the park we walked past a very beautiful young, lemon-centred gum. In fact, after all this, I showed a picture of this gum tree to my editor and she went “that’s a hot tree.” It was a hot tree. Anyway, it shimmered in full psychedelic glory. It’s just extraordinary. And I actually said “youth, youth are the future.” Before you know, feeling the tree up, and my wife took a video of me hugging the tree, so I have evidence. And then she hugged it as well, which is not her usual mode, and we looked around to see a tourist taking photographs of us hugging the tree. Then we continued our hero’s journey. 

We had not planned really the whole getting from Royal Park back home and this walk took on mythic proportions. I was walking through suburbs I’d lived in through decades, I was born like 10 minutes from where this trip was going on. I knew the place like the back of my hand, but everything was pulsing and the roads were writhing. And then I bumped into a work colleague, which was not great, and that was when I realised that I’d worn this loose shirt, my tits were hanging out, I had feathers in my hair and leaves in my hair because Virginia had been putting feathers in my hair. And then I bumped into a friend who that was fine, but his son, I could see his son going ‘ugh’.   And then we finally got home after what felt like years and we put on Bitches Brew by Miles Davis and I listened to it in full Technicolor glory and I had full synesthesia and it was a beautiful thing. And that is the end of my story, thank you. 

Maeve: Thanks for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast, share your favourite tales on the socials and follow Queerstories on Facebook for updates. If you enjoy Queerstories, consider supporting the project on Patreon. Check out the link in the episode description. Finally for late-night ramblings, gay shit and photos of me trying to garden with a baby on my back. Follow Maeve Marsden on Twitter and Instagram. 

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Queerstories is produced by Maeve Marsden and recorded by wonderful technicians at events around the country. Editors and support crew have included Beth McMullen, Bryce Halliday, Ali Graham and Nikki Stevens.