Strange times indeed

Where to begin when you sit down to write for the first time in three weeks and the world is a completely different place to what it was last time you faced a blank page? And how does one reclaim a creative space embattled by a mountain of work priorities driven by a virus taking an extraordinary toll on humanity?

In the grand scheme of things I am incredibly fortunate in these uncertain times – I have a stable job and I can now work from home, I am holed up in a comfortable house surrounded by hilltops, forests and the constant chatter of bird life, I have a garden to potter in and grow a lot of my own food, and a person and a dog who I am happy to be locked up with. I am also a natural introvert, so am not overly distressed by the idea of staying home for six months, after all I voluntarily did exactly that for 12 months only a little over a year ago when I took time off to write.

So what is it that leaves me a little discombobulated? There is of course the great sadness experienced when reading the news about the toll the virus is taking on the world, the shock at how this situation exposes the fragility of our globally interconnected economic and social systems, the fear that this even event will not be enough for us to find a different way to live in relation to nature, and for the well-being of people I care about. It is perfectly normal to feel a little shell shocked in the early period of a crisis of this scale, regardless of how well protected from it you might feel individually.

A situation such as this requires a significant mental shift as well as a physical reorganisation, and a willingness to embrace a new normal. The last three weeks have been a work whirlwind – we had 100 people we needed to try to reorganise to be able to work from home. This took a mammoth effort from myself and colleagues. We also have thousands of stakeholders we needed to provide urgent information to – to help them understand the changes to our workplace, and to connect them with information to help them weather the storm.

Prioritising taking care of the work team has been important, and I have been happy to do so, but at the same time I lament the intrusion into my personal space, particularly my creative space, and how the separation between this and work demands have become blurred. I need to trust that on the other side of this shift I will find my creative, resilient brain waiting for me. It made me realise how much routine plays a part in making time for ourselves – I used to use the time commuting to and from work as my creative writing time, with that gone, I need to create a new routine that allows time for writing.

It is clear the current situation is going to last for a long time, at least until a vaccine is found – conservative estimates suggest at least six months, if not years,. The situation demands finding a new routine that allows for as much of the fullness of our lives as can be managed within the restrictions we must live with out of compassion and care for our fellow human beings, as well as our own. My frustration of recent weeks led me to think about what a new structure might look like…here are some of my thoughts.

On the intrusion of work

The voice of work can be loud voice and demanding. We need to take the time to set up a comfortable workspace and make it as private as circumstances allow. Find new ways using technology to stay connected to staff and colleagues now you can’t lob up at their desk. Build in regular welfare checks to make sure they are ok. Carve out time blocks for different categories of your work – do the easy things when stress levels are high and the more challenging jobs when your concentration is at its best. Don’t expect your productivity to be what it was – at least not immediately.

Take regular breaks – make a cuppa, drink water, pat the dog/cat, talk to the houseplant, walk around the garden or gaze out the window. Even better open all the windows and blast out the house with fresh air.

Keep time sheets to help yourself contain your day job to reasonable hours the loss of a commute removes the natural boundary of home time.

Personal Wellness

Create a routine. Keep getting up and going to bed at a reasonable time. Move your body in a way that makes you energised at the start of the day. My go to exercise is running or walking with the hound, yoga by YouTube or a bike ride. I will also make time for the solace of gardening. Last weekend I spent time in the veggie patch, weeding and planting seeds – my own version of hoarding whilst others were madly buying toilet paper and cleaning products.

Do some of those jobs you’ve been putting off forever because you were too busy – tidy those cupboards, paint a room, finish the landscape project, organise your bookshelf – control the things you can it can ground us when things are a little chaotic.

Eat well – if you weren’t a cook before, maybe now is a good time to learn the skill, and to appreciate the comfort in it – a couple of the my favourite places to go for tasty recipes are Arthur Street Kitchen and Ottolenghi. Identify things you can do to you bring you peace or joy – take a bath, sort your holiday photos, paint or journal, find a place you can retreat to. What things would you put in your self care toolkit? Keep them close and turn to when needed.

It is important to stay up to date with what’s happening in your world, but it’s also easy to be sucked into obsessing about it. Place limits on your engagement with news and social media about the COVID conversation and remember the media is often sensationalist, so acquire your information from trusted reliable sources. Don’t lose sight of what is good in the world.
Look for things to laugh at each day – your pet being amusing, silly memes online, and when it all seems too much – reach out for assistance.

Creativity

Carve out time for creativity and make sure you use that time for something connected to your creative interests. Now is the time to start that long term project you’ve been thinking about on and off. My plan is to set aside a block of time each day to write, perhaps I will finish my second book sooner than I thought. On the days I don’t actually write I will use my creative time for a connected activity like reading or online learning on writing. The Australian Writers Centre delivers some great online courses for writers and Writers Victoria are moving a lot of their workshops online, one of which I am doing tomorrow.

Your creative thing might be painting, knitting, sewing, or learning an instrument. Don’t limit yourself to things you already know how to do – get online and find someone who’s moved their teaching practice online – you could learn a new craft and support another creative at the same time.

Social connectivity

The political narrative about needing to keep our distance from people to contain the spread of COVID-19 uses the term social distancing. For many, the term spells isolation and loneliness. I wish the policy-makers had considered this and referred to physical distancing instead, as at times of stress, social connection is even more important than usual. It provides ballast and helps to keep people mentally well. Find ways to connect with friends and loved ones that keeps everyone safe, whether its Snapchat, video catch ups or long phone conversations. The time for hanging out in coffee shops and hugs will return eventually. We tried our first digital dinner party last week, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it can work. Some tips:

  • Keep up communication as you cook so you can time your dial in to get everyone eating together
  • Set your laptop up at least arms length from where you sit (a bit further away than where you lay the table) so everyone can be seen in the picture together
  • Sit the laptop up on some books – it works better if the camera is slightly above your eye level
  • Bring your best self to these occasions, people are dealing with the changed world in different ways, and we need to bring compassion for those we care about – it can bring out both the best and worst in people.
    If you want to hang out online because that’s the only option while you are in isolation there are loads of apps for that – Zoom, Skype, House party, Google hangouts.

This weekend we’re going to try one where everyone taking part cooks the same meal.

Community

Continue to greet neighbours from a respectable distance when you pass them in the street, when you can – support local businesses that are staying open to service your needs or donate to your favourite creative organisation. When businesses set up rules to help keep customers safe and trade fairly in response to some individuals being overtaken by individual greed – follow them without griping – it’s a time to loosen our grip on control and individualism and think more collectively. In Australia there is still plenty to go around – toilet paper, food and cleaning products included.Hoarding is really not necessary and probably tells us more about our mental health than it does about supply and demand – so if you are doing it perhaps consider spending the money on a therapist instead.

This new world order is going to be a marathon, not a sprint so railing against it will not help, now is the time for radical acceptance and innovating to make your life as full as it can be within the circumstances in which we find ourselves, with much lower expectations than you may have had previously. Chunk your days into bite sized manageable segments to avoid the existential dread of the unknown taking over and when you notice the current situation enabling injustices that make your blood boil – channel that energy into writing to your local MP, or the newspaper to call them out so the annoyance doesn’t fester.

If you wear yourself out at the beginning you may not make the distance in one piece, so take the time to find a way to be that offers you the best change of wellness, serenity and productivity for the long haul. And for those of us who take solace from creative pursuits, we must make room for them.

Stay well.

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