COVID-19 crept around Australia as my book came into the world. A book about being a spinster released exactly when we needed to know what it’s like to live alone, to manage solitude.
I visited three capital cities in two days. There were a lot of hugs. And there were a lot of aeroplanes. In Brisbane, I watched the river through my hotel window as news of Peter Dutton in the hospital down the road sank in. I returned to Melbourne that afternoon.
Through the following days I sanitised and stocked the house, and checked the flights I’d been on for reports of COVID-19 cases. I had escaped. I arranged a web of a support with neighbours and friends, then hunkered down and waited for symptoms borne of hugs to appear. They never came.
I released myself in to life as usual. I could live without hugs and face to face contact. I’m a spinster and a writer, I eat solitude for breakfast.
Instantly I drowned in survivor guilt. I had no children to home-school, no fragile relationship that might threaten my existence. I had a pocket of money that would get me through, though I had no idea what would come after that, but whatever it was I would think about it when it came. Not now. Now I should take this opportunity to write the definitive text on life in the time of COVID.
But a cardboard gremlin gnawed at my solitude. I picked up books, but couldn’t read. I scribbled sentences, but couldn’t think. I went into the street in search of conversation, and feel the day on my skin. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, and when it’s gone you are at odds the world.
Thank the gods COVID-life took over and my tour went online. I was distracted from the gremlin by the upward learning curve of Zoom, Zencastr, YouTube, and Skype. Lighting, backdrops, camera angles, stage make-up and social media assets. All this precipitated a hunger to scurry home and write. But I was home and bouncing round cyberspace without my safety net.
I told myself this is the writer’s struggle, not the plague. But restrictions were already easing and I hadn’t seized the day. It felt like sin.
I wanted redemption. I turned to Facebook. I don’t usually turn to social media to ask strangers anything, let alone, What will you take with into the future from all this?
As if she knew my pain, Meera Atkinson wrote, ‘It’s hard to write and focus when your hippocampus is on fire with life-threatening uncertainty.’
Her sentence saved me. I shall take my fiery hippocampus into the future.
When lockdown came Sibylla Phoenix was homeless and in search of a share-house. Then like a Phoenix, she rose from her flames by setting a writing project. Five thousand words poured out of her daily. Her precious take home line for me, for us all was: ‘If you can’t write the words you love, write whatever you can—just write.‘
In lockdown, Tru Dowling grieved her parent’s deaths and pushed impossible work deadlines. As I read her story I felt the first world nature of my problem. She found solitude and gardening smoothed her anxious soul. ‘And in the background, writing for its own beauty and sake. Thank God.’
I had forgotten. It is the act of making art that saves our lives.
But here’s a surprise, or it was for me. Mothers immersed in the chaos of home-schooling, stolen workspaces, and procuring extra digital prowess, found room in the day for themselves. Jennifer couldn’t write but she found time to read. ‘Reading strong authors kick started the mental gestation I haven’t done since the fires,’ she wrote.
Kathryn Pentecost said, and I wrote it down: ‘Great novelists are like secret mentors.’
But it was Penelope Russon’s sentence that kickstarted my mind: ‘I know I draw creative and intellectual energy from motherhood and closely observing myself mothering.’
How easily we forget. Family making, home making, even if it’s just for one, is art as well. And family making in the time of COVID-19 is fine art, indeed. Art that finds expression in words and images and song.
I had forgotten the secret of all things. Life is art, even the distempered moments of it, the terrifying, homeless uncertainty of it. Let these sentence spin our hippocampus cool, so we can walk into life beyond the time of COVID.
With thanks to Meera Atkinson, Sibylla Phoenix, Kathryn Pentecost, Jennifer Zeven, Tru Dowling, Penelope Russon.
The Wellness and Recovery Resource is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.