Love, actually?

“When you go out and see the empty streets, the empty stadiums, the empty train platforms, don’t say to yourself, “My God, it looks like the end of the world.” What you’re seeing is love in action. What you’re seeing, in that negative space, is how much we do care for each other, for our grandparents, for our immuno-compromised brothers and sisters, for people we will never meet. People will lose jobs over this. Some will lose their businesses. And some will lose their lives. All the more reason to take a moment, when you’re out on your walk, or on your way to the store, to look into the emptiness and marvel at all of that love. Let it fill you and sustain you. It isn’t the end of the world.It is the most remarkable act of global solidarity we may ever witness. It is the reason the world will go on.”

Anonymous

The above was doing the rounds in late March and was meant to help those struggling with the early days of isolation. What a lovely idea! Unfortunately, it’s a load of bollocks…  in my experience at least. Fear in action, 100 per cent. Love? It didn’t feel that way to me.

For example.

Just before lockdown started in earnest, Theo asked if he could head to our neighbour’s for a play. Usually there’s an open door policy between our homes, and the fact Theo’s heading there is announced rather than requested. “I’m going to Tyler’s” accompanied by the sound of their gate swinging is a soundtrack to the summer of 2019. 

But with school closed and Theo home, he sensed something was up and asked permission to go over. At that stage, I was still comfortable with the kids playing together, but because the boundaries of okay-ness were shifting all the time, I had to check where the neighbours were at. I held Theo’s little hand and took him to the neighbour’s gate. “Hey Paul” I said “is it ok with you guys if the kids play together?”

Poor Paul looked buggered. He and Amanda had just let go of 20 staff from their thriving cafe. “It’s fine with me, but I’m not feeling too good. Bit of a sore throat.”

I jerked my hand from their gate. “I’m sorry to hear that. Surely just because you’ve had a big week, right?”

“I hope so! Big week for you, too. Amanda told me about the Kiva Spa closing.”

I think for both Paul and me it was too soon and too raw and frankly too terrifying to dissect what the fuck was going on, so we made do with shrugs and I uttered a platitude which was to become something of a catchphrase. “Strange times!”

I felt Theo’s little body sag with disappointment. “Come on buddy. No play today. Hope you feel better soon, Paul.”

Back home I made Theo wash his hands and I did the same. He seemed sad but not angry, which made me sad too. 

Paul and my exchange was brief, but it moved me disproportionately. Far more dramatic things had happened that week but my kid not being able to play, and fear over the extent of Paul’s health reinforced that we were not in Kansas anymore. There was something too in the recognition that the bad week I was having was being echoed by my literal neighbour. This conjured up less of a sense that we’re all in this together and more one of: we are all so screwed.

I remember closing our gate and thinking “guess we’re pulling up the drawbridge, then.”

It didn’t feel like love. 

That night I got a phone call from my 24 year old nephew who lives in Sydney. He was worried about losing his job and paying rent and wanted to know whether it would be ok to stay with us. “I’ll talk to Johnno and get back to you.” I said. This killed me. I am so the person who says ‘get your arse up here, of course you can stay.’ The day James was born, so was an indulgent aunty. I relate to him with more largesse than anyone else in my life. I’m not sure why but it’s a sweet and playful dynamic.  

But that day, I had to curb that force. James had a part time job in a busy bar in Sydney, a city with more cases of coronavirus than any other in the country. His demographic are notoriously careless, although he swore to me he’d been careful. What if he literally brought it to my small country town, like the London tailor who transported bubonic plague to a rural village via a bolt of cloth in 1665? Besides, would James actually want to go into lockdown with his young cousins and dull old aunt and uncle? 

I talked all this through with Johnno and told James that yes, he can come and stay but he needed to come now if he was going to come at all. Luckily for him he was able to hold on to his job and decided to stay in Sydney. 

But not being able to freely say “get up here!”? That didn’t feel like love. 

The week after our interaction with Paul (who was fine, by the way), the ‘stay home’ consensus had taken a firm hold – the drawbridge was definitely up. Leaving the house was practically taboo, especially for children. So imagine my surprise when I received a text message from Amy’s friend’s mum, inviting Amy for a sleepover for the friend’s birthday. 

It didn’t feel like love to have to explain to a crying 12 year old that no, I didn’t seriously think she was going to catch coronavirus, but rules are rules and they’re in place for a reason. Johnno did an amazing job of breaking down how individual actions impact on societies, and how if one person is irresponsible it could damage a whole community – theoretically at least. His lawyerly approach seemed to take the edge off Amy’s disappointment, although she remained in a funk for some time. 

“You were a legend, Johnno,” I said to him that evening “I think it really helped Amy to hear the logical reason for lockdown.”

He shrugged. “Personally I’d have been happy for her to go. But you’d said no so I knew I had to back you up. Are we having tea?”

It’s brilliant when your partner of over 25 years can still surprise you. And that, my friends?

That felt a lot like love.

For a minute there… I lost myself

At the end of March, the threat of an outbreak in Australia loomed large with case numbers tracking those in Europe. An undercurrent of fear flowed through my days, partly thanks to my obsession with reading detailed accounts of how the illness plays out. I am haunted by the false dawn that sufferers report, where they feel better after a week then get taken down again on day 9 or 10. Stark visuals of crowded hospitals also give me the fear, but my distress peaks when reading the ‘physician’s choice’ stories, where people in need outnumber available respirators. One metric doctors use is: if you’ve ever had cancer, you don’t get one. That’d be me out, then. 

Sent to a friend who didn’t believe Australia were tracking Italy.

I consume and consume, falling down infinite rabbit holes reading across a range of sources, many of dubious quality. I read a long Facebook post which included advice like “hot water helps… if you can hold your breath and not cough you’re okay.” A nurse in Brisbane is cited as the author. I then read the exact same post in a WhatsApp group, except this time it’s a doctor from London. I tell myself I stay online to keep informed and safe, but the truth is I couldn’t have unplugged, even if I’d wanted to. Coronavirus dominates conversations with Johnno, with my first words to him in the morning along the lines of “1,500 new cases in Italy yesterday.” The more connected I am to the rolling news, the more disconnected I am from my body. And soul, for that matter. My ability to function has deteriorated massively: I sleep terribly, snap at nothing, and cannot concentrate on anything non Coronavirus-related. 

Before the pandemic you’d have had me pegged as a sleeve-roller-upper, let’s make the most of this, build something, make bread or make a ton of food-type. Instead, I am Olaf – utterly frozen. My response to the elevated stress is not fight or flight, but freeze. Meanwhile, Johnno has flown into action, and within a week of the stay home order has ticked DIY tasks off the list that have been lingering since we moved in a decade ago. I am usually the one who’s more dynamic and organised, but there’s been a Freaky Friday style switcheroo and I will forever associate the mechanical growl of a gurney with being in lockdown.

“Where’s dad?”

I watch years of grime being hosed off our home with bemusement, unable to get a grip on what’s going on. It’s as if I’m stoned, an observer. I resent any call on me to participate in any way shape or form, which is no good when you’re a parent. Let along the only parent who’s not on a roof and deafened by heavy machinery. It’s not as if the kids ask loads of me, they never have, but their reasonable demands make me sag my shoulders in despair. I don’t recognise, nor like, this person who is making such heavy weather of the basics.

Let’s take dinner – the perennial question that sneaks up all too quickly in spite of the rest of time existing in another, slower dimension. Whenever it’s my turn, I throw money at the problem, as the wherewithal to cook has deserted me. It’s either takeaway, where I get with the Soviet vibe and queue in one of the hastily taped out designated spots, or I find myself in the frozen food section of our local convenience store when it’s about to close. Once home, I clean my hands and beat myself up for being free all day, yet failing to pull together an evening meal. 

That is not the only standard that has taken a journey to the floor then kept going south; the kids have sniffed out that they are allowed TV during the week, a luxury usually reserved for school holidays. Naturally, they are over the moon and it works for me too; my body floods with relief when I see Netflix’s red barcode or hear the firm chime at the start of a show. It means I can relax, knowing I have at least 30 minutes to stay in stupor-mode, plus it distracts the kids from the fact their dinner isn’t ready. Not that they mind, because I’ve deliberately stocked up on crisps and snacks so they can’t plague me with complaints about being hungry. I’m now so laissez-faire about the distribution of what’s normally considered treat food, the kids get out of the habit of asking if they’re allowed it. They understand their part of the deal is to stay off my back, and in fairness to them they do. 

Instead of enjoying the holiday vibe, I feel full of guilt and shame. I thought I had self-compassion. WRONG! I did not cut myself any slack for reaching for shortcuts during those dazed and confused days. Instead I’d vow to do better tomorrow, whilst simultaneously knowing I’d do no better tomorrow. My self-talk was definitely more “get it together Sambo, what is wrong with you?” than “give yourself a break, this is a once in a lifetime situation.” Ironic, given one of my favourite bits of advice I like to dish out relates to the importance of compassionate self-talk. “Talk to yourself as if you were consoling a close friend.” I’d say. Seriously, if any friend of mine talked to me the way I was talking to myself, I’d have told them to fuck off til they thought they’d finished fucking off, and then fuck off some more.   

I was convinced I was failing myself, as well as my children. Before lockdown I would practise yoga twice a week, which I let slide along with Pilates, and 3 days on/4 days off drinking alcohol. 

Thoughts of trying to re-engage with healthy behaviour got laughed at by the devil on my shoulder. One evening, I thought about starting the next day with a yoga session. It’d set me up for the day, I reasoned, making me feel calm and more together, rather than scrolling, which had the opposite effect. Even as the thought tracked my brain I heard the mental rejoinder ‘fuck that, have another glass of wine instead.’ The resistance was more nuanced than that, though: I genuinely felt that sitting in stillness and silence would be way too difficult when my monkey mind was in overdrive. Intellectually, I understood yoga would do me wonders, but so deep was the self-sabotage, a simple online class got built up in my mind to seem as impossible as a marathon, and I have not returned to the mat to this day.  

I couldn’t see what now seems blisteringly obvious: I was in the grip of anxiety. I’ve never had it before, so didn’t appreciate what was going on. Johnno and I had both lost our jobs! The kids’ schools had closed! Normal life had all but disintegrated Inception-style. Dear God the experience of supervising school work nearly finished me off on its own, I’m still too traumatised to write about it. So I wish I could time travel and hug that stressed out person beating herself up for being out of sorts, I’d reassure her that her behaviour was a totally justified given the situation.

The airless quality lingered til early April, then started to lift when I read something that helped to contextualise what I was going through: a post by aid worker Imogen Wall. Here’s an extract:

REACTIONS: everyone reacts differently to emergencies. Some people information-seek like mad, some get angry, some pick fights (in real life or on social media), some panic, some make a LOT of jokes, some deny the problem, some become terribly terribly active and efficient and want to help, some withdraw and fall off the radar. These are, fundamentally, all coping mechanisms for the same thing, which is at its root a deep sense of fear and loss of control. They’re all valid. Bottom line: we’ll need to be kind to each other, and that includes if someone is being aggressive or argumentative or overbearing. Experience suggests that we’ll all have a bit of a meltdown, and probably a cry, at some point. It’s just the way it goes.

RIGHT NOW IS ONE OF THE WORST BITS: the worst bit of crises is that moment when everyone collectively realises the severity of what we are facing and goes, oh shit. The moment at the top of the rollercoaster when we all look down. It’s horrible. But it doesn’t last. In a little while everything will normalise and find a new rhythm. It’ll be a different life, and a (much) harder one for some, but it’ll have structure and routine. I’ve been in camps of disaster survivors a week after an earthquake – and there are always, already, communities reforming, hairdressers opening up, coffee shops. Humans are incredibly adaptable. Also, you are about to find out just how many amazing people you have around you. This is one of the best bits.

What a joy to feel the cloud lift, to wake up, come to my senses and recognise myself again. The true turning point? Starting this blog. Of all the lessons I have learned so far in this year of wonder the most useful has been: creating always, always, always helps, especially when the balance between consuming and creating is grossly out of whack.

Confessions of a Drama Queen

At the start of March, normal life starts to fray at the edges. In one very confusing shopping trip, I discover the store has run out of loo roll. Run out of loo roll? Where am I, interwar Moscow? Next I notice a woman wearing a mask. Is she planning a heist?, I barely refrain from wondering aloud. I arrive home, loo-roll-less and conscious that my sovereign right to carrying on as normal was slipping away. It’s embarrassing, but Sam in early March was a toddler having a tantrum, an Ivory Tower resident about to get a crash course in perspective. 

Because of course, worse was to come. During the next week, the concept of social distancing was introduced and legislation to enforce it rushed through Parliament. The whole of my daughter’s basketball season was cancelled and every bastard on the planet started to talk about moving lessons online, including her piano teacher. Back in the supermarket, signs declaring a 2 tin limit on canned goods dangled off naked shelves: something I have not witnessed in my lifetime. Grocery shopping transmutes from a neutral experience to a highly tetchy one. Not just because you can’t buy what you need, but because everyone is suspicious of each other. I turn corners in there as if I’m in a haunted house. So the irritation persists but is layered with ominousness. Last week I’d vocalise my Marie Antoinette-style woes, but it’s now on the nose to dine out on such righteousness. Oh, and as for dining out? Can’t do that anymore as it’s takeaway only everywhere in Australia. 

By now, coronavirus dominates my every thought and conversation. Each morning upon waking I no longer read a book for an hour, foregoing that wholesome pursuit in favour of scrolling.

Books read, Jan to mid March

Books read, mid March to Mid April

I scroll and scroll through news and social media for the latest, activating primal fear centres as I go. If my kids see me on the phone first thing I used to feel ashamed and hurriedly hide it. Every morning now, though, the poor buggers are lucky to attract a glance up from me. I have surrendered to being fully plugged in to the endless news and drama cycle. And there is drama everywhere I look. There are charts with plunging red arrows (stock market) and climbing red arrows (case numbers). I refamiliarise myself with how to read charts and pore over every inch with a sick devotion. I consider (but stop short of) taking up smoking again: it’s an activity that would resonate with the destructive, depraved vibe I’m cultivating. Instead, I start clock watching mid-afternoon and count how long it is til it is 5pm and I’m allowed a drink. I am on to my second by 5.15.   

To the kids bemusement, we start watching the news every evening, where each night we hear new adjectives to describe case numbers (climbed, jumped, sky-rocketed) and see the Aussie government’s daily press briefings. The right wing administration drag their feet towards the inevitable lock down, which gives each briefing a Twin Peaks-esque quality. In one, we’re told you aren’t allowed in the shopping centre shops, but you can eat at the food court there. I turn to Johnno and ask “And who amongst us hasn’t enjoyed a food court meal without a visit to the shops?!” 

In the nick of time, the country settled on the version of lockdown we’re currently in: people other than essential workers are only allowed out to buy groceries or exercise. Three weeks on and, mercifully, the curve in Australia has started to flatten. But I will never forget the way the journey to lockdown was eked out and how lucky the Government is that despite their dicking around, they managed to close the stable door before the horse bolted.

In the period of go-away-kids-mum’s-reading-the-news the crisis becomes deeply personal when JP and I lose the jobs we love at a thriving spa and massage business. I am in full agreement with my boss’ decision to close, even though that decision pulls the rug out from under us. Suddenly, the drama addict has a new emotion to assimilate: fear. Losing my job yanks me from popcorn-eating spectator to star of the disaster movie. To that point I’d taken an amoral view of the vile but human part of me that enjoyed moaning about the infractions on my charmed life whilst scrolling through catastrophe porn. But as economic insecurity rattled my nerves, that part shrivelled in shame. 

There follows a series of days where I wake with the near instant knowledge that the innocence of sleep has gone, and it’s time to face the nightmare ahead. The morning scrolling continues, guilitly and joylessly. I am languid, heavy with the reality of not just being unemployed, but of being horribly alive in an unsafe world that’s melting beyond recognition like the Nazi’s face at the end of Raiders. In the hours before 5pm, when I can hotwire my way to being out of it, I find I am frequently out of my body for thirty seconds at a time, staring out the window, trying to forget myself. “This is not, this is not really happening!” my head sings, before reality crashes in with “You bet your life it is!” 

Then my emotions careen to the other extreme when the Australian government responds to the unfolding clusterfuck with a generous benefit package for those who’ve lost their jobs as a direct result of the crisis.

I’ve always thought that living in a country with a functioning social security system was a privilege, but when I came to draw on that system I felt that privilege viscerally, genuinely experiencing gratitude within my body. This is no cursory reaction, either, as I discover when a civil servant calls to finalise my claim two weeks later. He asks me to confirm my address and I say “Before I do, I’d like to say how grateful I am for the Government’s support. I think we’re so lucky to live in a country that… ” and on I go, starting to weep a bit. It sounds for all the world as if I’m accepting an Oscar, rather than $550 a fortnight. Somehow we stumble our way through the call.

Next up, you can expect more histrionics as I describe my first experience of homeschooling. Hint: happy hour gets earlier and the servings more generous. 

What a year this month has been

It’s a pretty hollow boast, but I consider myself one of Australia’s early adopters of coronavirus anxiety. Having family in Italy is what dialed me in early to the looming crisis and from the start of March, I’d wake unusually early and check this site, a habit that shows no sign of going away. Back then conversations about the virus were rare, and the stereotypical Aussie attitude of ‘she’ll be right’ prevailed. Normally, I share that easy-going nonchalance, and was really disoriented by how pessimistic I felt.

Do you remember the opening scene of Castaway, when Tom Hanks heads to the loo on the plane to tend to a small cut? Within seconds, the plane crashes and Hanks’ cut is the least of his worries. My disorientation was the last worry-that’s-not-really-a-worry I’d have the luxury of giving mental airtime to, as my very own plane was about to fall out of the sky.

In less space of less than a week, Johnno and I both lost our jobs and our kids could no longer go to school. Two major tent poles collapsed, and we were scrabbling around under the canvas. Work and school? It’s just what you do! What do you do when you’re not doing that? Existential crises collided with financial anxiety…. I was in freefall, along with my colleagues. My community. My country. The world.

It is mid March and by now, coronavirus is getting blanket coverage across the media. At the time of writing, it still is. Everyone became aware of the insane amount of times per day they touched their faces and discovered they weren’t washing their hands properly. Social-distancing, self-isolation, Zoom and flattening the curve became everyday language. Meanwhile, the cold tang of hand sanitiser is 2020’s signature scent, one that anyone alive today will be able to smell in years to come and recollect this shitful year.

It is all anyone talks about. I was so shocked by how quickly everyone jumped to the same page that I forgot to be smug about it. But that smugness would have been shortlived, because it turns out I wasn’t even slightly braced for the dissolution of normality and confronted it with a total absence of grace and foresight.

The word that best articulates the feeling of the last month is “grief”. I know a thing or two about that bastard! So I will write about that next.

But finally, a word from my prescient, pessimistic side: The worst is yet to come. Anyone who thinks this will blow over quickly are the equivalent of the folks in 1914 who said ‘the boys will be home by Christmas.’

No-one alive likes to be right more than me. And I really, really, really hope I’m wrong.