Michelle Langstone is a well-known actress, known for her roles in series such as McLeod’s Daughters, Westside, and Go Girls. Times Like These: On grief, hope & remarkable love, is her debut collection of essays.
I was surprised to learn that she suffers from extreme anxiety and shyness — neither of her highly public careers, first as an actress, and then as a writer of essays where she lays her emotions bare, seem like the kind of activities a shy person would embrace. As a fellow shy and anxious person, I felt I had to trust her word, but through much of the collection, I was left standing on the outside. That is, until she writes about a chance meeting with an old high school bully, in the essay ‘Rabbits’.
She said she felt so badly for the way she had treated me and had thought about it as she followed my career over the years. I couldn’t feel anything except a peculiar buzzing in my ears, and my arms betrayed me and I hugged her. I heard myself tell her that high school was an unkind place and we were all probably unkind to each other, even though I didn’t really believe it. I told her I was glad it was over. And then I said goodbye.
Langstone returns home and cracks open a bottle of wine. As she dwells on what eluded her in the moment, her insights around the encounter are astutely observed.
I sat on my bed and drank glass after glass. It was not an easy relief that spread through me. In my veins I felt validation and trouble. Somewhere I had been complicit in the easing of a guilt, and I wasn’t sure I wanted that. I wanted the validation of my time at school to come without the deliverance of compassion to the person who harmed me, but I had been unable to remain impassive, unable to punish. All the words I had saved up like sharp teeth had nothing to bite into. These useless, decades-old fangs just had to be put away, because in the forgiveness I had given up my fight.
Motivation then, for seeking those spaces which allow her to explore herself through her craft in a way where her self-consciousness disappears. In ‘Hide and Speak’, she says of her acting career, ‘I can’t account for the magic of the vanishing. It is a neat trick that is thrown down: a swift sleight of hand and I’m gone.’
Her grief over the death of her beloved father, Dawson Langstone, is the cornerstone of Times Like These. Precious moments with her dad, such as memories of him navigating their boat, appear in various parts of the book, threading the essays together in a raw and vivid way and the last page, of Dawson welcoming Langstone into the world, is beautifully written.
A chapter with her mum, who talks her through restoring wilting plants, is also fantastic in its carefully crafted observation: ‘She rips out all the dying plants and inspects them like a forensic expert’.
According to her dad, it transpires that Langstone is not like the others. When he’s musing about how different she is from her siblings, ‘She thinks things over very deeply . . . She feels big things’, it somehow seems inevitable that feeling these ‘big things’ leads to the flurry of jostling emotions at certain points in the prose. This works well in some passages, but at certain points it made it hard to glimpse Langstone’s heart for the snowstorm. This snowstorm froze me into place for several paragraphs in ‘Where I Walk’, a lockdown essay which feels almost obligatory these days, and (based on the admittedly small number I’ve read) don’t offer a huge diversity of experiences, skewed as they tend to be towards those who have a certain amount of privilege.
When I go out to walk again I feel anxiety shaking the mainframe of my system like an earthquake underwater, all the feelings drifting upwards, dislodged. In the space of a day, a large number of journalists and writers have lost their jobs, and many magazines have filed their final copy. Overnight, all the best people are out of work, and it feels symbolic of a greater disease spreading. I notice that I walk leaning into the day, my torso tight. I am sharp lines against the blue sky and the high autumn light that is beaming regardless. It is the first time I have been afraid. I am afraid of the things we are losing, the words running away from us, the stories silenced. I am afraid for bank balances running low, and for the democracy generated in copy that will no longer go to print. I am afraid of the pain of those who lose family members. I am worried for everyone.
Its companion essay of sorts, ‘Love Like This’, is a stronger and more perceptive channel for these circling thoughts, delving as she does on how nasty some of the rhetoric around Covid has been in treating the elderly as expendable.
My mother, at seventy-two, is now classed in this bracket, too, and I feel horror when I see the bloodless way lives are discussed as if they are disposable. Arun’s grandparents helped to raise him. They lived in his family home for his entire life, and cared for him, and taught him things that have no monetary value but yield dividends in wisdom and guardianship.
More care could have been taken with tired phrasing in a few sections, which renders the prose opaque: ‘She reaches deep into the wellspring of her own invention’. There are lines that romanticise: ‘I have never wanted to be a parent on my own. I see it work for others, and it is a marvel, and it is beautiful, but I have always known I’m not capable of it.’
Langstone’s essays give the impression of someone with an enormous capacity for gratitude and wonder for the small things. However, she’s thin on the details with the big — a mostly happy childhood with wonderful parents, meeting the love of her life, a successful career in a difficult field to break into, IVF ultimately giving her and her husband their longed-for baby. It’s impossible to tell if this is an editorial decision, or one she chose to make. Her command of her craft should be enough to assure that her seat at the table is deserved. She shows her vulnerability within the workings of her grief beautifully, but I would’ve liked her to trust the reader more with the same on other experiences, such as joy, which she must have experienced.