200 days of solitude

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Yesterday marked the 200th day of lockdowns in Melbourne since the beginning of the pandemic. The solitude of lockdown has a rhythm, and despite the shrinking of our worlds to 5km life goes on. It is surprising how much still happens.

I wake at 5am to a dark silence interrupted only by the occasional sound of snoring from the great yellow hound languishing on my bed. 

I suppose I will have to make the coffee again, I think. Sometimes I say it out loud and wonder how I might teach the dog to do the task. Though, I suspect even if Harper knew how, I would still be the morning barista as I would lose patience with her indolence before she with mine.

I make coffee and breakfast. Chicken and vegetables for the dog, muesli, yoghurt and an orange or tangelo plucked from my tree the day prior for me. I climb back into bed with my hoard (the dog will have to get up for hers). 

My plan is always to write, but often I become lost in news stories about COVID, vaccines, politics and the destruction of the planet, or find myself falling blindly down some social media rabbit hole. My morbid fascination with all this unpleasantness so early in the morning confounds me. Though perhaps it is not so surprising considering some of my reading as reflected in my book reviews. My father keeps suggesting Thomas Hardy and Jane Austin to cure my macabre tastes in literature.

It is hard to know whether my staccato concentration is a consequence of social media or COVID brain, but I often become frustrated by it and apply additional effort to focus my concentration, congratulating myself for putting pen to paper and bleeding ink across the page (or screen), even if it is only 200 words. This blog generates a rigid moment of writing discipline each week that I am grateful for having imposed on myself, as even in my laziest writing periods this weekly ritual keeps me engaged.

Mornings are the most precious part of my day. They seem to me always to be filled with hope. 

I leave the house with the dog just before dawn. The first kilometre of our morning sojourn traverses a quiet road running up a north-south ridge. To my left I catch glimpses of the sky burning shades of yellow, orange, pink and red from the sun rising behind the mountains to the east. I spy the occasional ringtail possum crouching in a tree as if enjoying the event. To my right, the  blinking lights of Melbourne gradually fade as the sky brightens. I am transported along this enchanted path by the morning chorus as it shifts and swells and rolls with the growing illumination. I am absorbed and in awe of the beauty around me.

Away from the stories of pestilence, conflict and climate change it is easy to find great pleasure and meaning in the small things of life. An emerging flower augers the coming spring, the pure joy on my dog’s face as she wallows in the muddy waters of the Yarra and explores the bushland, the sight of Tawny Frogmouths roosting high up in a eucalypt. The ninety minute walk is a fortifying elixir and the most precious part of my day.

On staying home

Gone are the days of commuting ninety minutes in the dark through windswept, rain battered streets. No more standing in a grey Docklands tower, clickety-clack for eight hours on a keyboard, as the winter daylight waxes and wanes, only to emerge back into darkened streets to climb upon a crowded bus of weary damp strangers to make the ninety minute trip home again.

If I block out the reality of the silent scourge, it’s tiny puffball droplets wreaking havoc on humanity, the sight of a weary premier, grey creeping up his temples from the news he must deliver day in, day out. News that catches in his throat, of illness, death, and the ever increasing curtailments he must impose on a public divided by understanding and castigation.

If I don’t focus on the struggle of those without jobs to make money to put food on the table for their loved ones and a roof over their heads, whilst their masters are holed up safely in their mansions. Or those with a roof but not the solace of its safety, crammed into tiny boxes like battery farmed hens pecking at one other to relieve the distress of their confinement.

If I forget about the elderly and the sick who are ending their lives in a lonely drowning, and the fears of the health workers risking themselves to make their passing as painless as it can be. If I don’t worry about the young people who’s futures have become suspended in the uncertainty of the unknown.

If I ignore the statistics that tell me about the 19 million infections, over half a million deaths, and the science that says we still know little about the long term effects, or our ability to find a vaccine that works.

If I don’t think about how I miss the embraces and shared tables with my nearest and dearest, or how long it will be before I see them again. Only then can I say lockdown isn’t so bad.

I am one of the lucky ones after all, with a roof over my head, a loving relationship to sustain me, and a secure work from home job that doesn’t require me to put my health on the line – a fact I have been reminded of every time I see my neighbours – a policeman, a nurse, and a school teacher – head out to work.

A pandemic resulting from human encroachment in nature is not a surprise. The likelihood this could happen has been known, and planned for to some degree for years in the form of medical stockpiles and land set aside for mass graves, and many eastern counties had pandemic plans in place. Only the loony fringe of 5G conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and flat earthers who found a common cause in COVID-19 denied its existence.

The weaknesses in the capitalist ideal, and the consequence of failing to care for the environment have been exposed. The pandemic has triggered the sharpest and deepest economic contraction in the history of capitalism, reversed globalism, collapsed supply chains, cut international travel, put millions out of work and pushed business to bankruptcy.

The most uncompromising neoliberal economies were hit the hardest as our insatiable appetite for consumption petered out in the face of supermarket shelves emptied of toilet paper. Neoliberal ideologues suddenly stopped preaching fiscal austerity and free market determinism and came over all Keynesian, begging for government spending to prop up the economy.

Many people in our highly individualised society ignored pleas to stay home and distance, and the precarious casualised workforce desperate to keep their families from poverty continued to go to work. Both groups became perfect vectors for spreading the virus. It has demonstrated that we are a collective society and that when one is vulnerable, we all are.

My hope post pandemic is that unfettered capitalism cannot shake off the faults that have been exposed, and that we find a new, more compassionate way to run economies that are considerate of the environment and benefit society collectively, rather than simply deifying markets and profits.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Henry David Thoreau

On a typical day, I roll out of bed at 6am to work on my book, or ride my bike in the winter forest with its early sprinkling of wattle dust. When I stop for a moment, I notice midges swarming in a patch of sunlight, and the music of birds as the gentle hand of the wind sweeps through the leaves of the eucalyptus trees. The noticing reminds me why I chose to live in this beautiful place some distance from the city.

My commute has been replaced by a short stroll to the spare room with its views of a forest, expansive crisp winter skies, and a grass tree that grows at a pace in keeping with this new pared back existence. My work is interrupted only by the sounds of bird calls and a giant yellow hound pleading to come in and loll on the bed behind me.

At night I eat home cooked meals and read a book. I watch a lazy moon pass across a blanket of stars, and listen to the silent streets reclaimed by creatures of the night no longer afraid because their greatest predator is safely locked up after dark.

Dinner parties and dates have been replaced by WhatsApp chats and the occasional Zoomed hello with friends I have known for more years than I can remember. We still laugh across the airwaves, compare notes on our small lives, share gossip, or reflect on our collective crush on Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton like giggly teens.

I have taken a week off work to toil in my garden and pluck weeds from the damp earth between rain showers. The meditative solitude leads me to contemplate this change, what it means for the way we live and what I believe to be important. The small 5km world in which I now exist contains most of what I need. Like Henry Thoreau at Waldon, I am living simply. I have entered my own social experiment.

The reflection reminds me of the many people in rural areas for whom all life is like this, and that it is not very different from the life I lived many years ago in my late teens in the east of the state, 5km up a lonely dirt road at the foot of the great dividing range. I find that despite the lingering guilt for feeling so, I am content with it.

A part of me hopes that when the virus is gone, life will not return entirely to what it was. Whilst I do not imagine we will collectively embrace the kind of ideas Thoreau espoused, perhaps it might do us good to move a little closer to them.