Covid Capers 3: the lockdown

We are coming to the end of a pretty bleak Melbourne winter – during which I didn’t write or create much at all.

I find that the constant background stress eviscerates my ability to write… I don’t sleep well and cannot dwell in the slow spaces between words that allows the alchemy of feeling and form to find its way into language. My descent into cheesy alliteration is one sign of this.

My adrenaline ebbs and flows…. but I don’t sleep well. I don’t think many people do. Especially not at the moment.

So here are some brief notes on the edges and contradictions that I am wrangling with at the moment. This is closer to the original weblog format before twitter contracted our words into snappy micro-reflections on each instant.

I have collaborated on (ie transcribed & edited the spoken broken English) of a story from my flatmate about the ‘other’ Melbourne: the north western perimeter beyond the ring road where the second wave hit hardest. He commutes to a warehouse where he sweats in backbreaking shifts with other people on temporary visas to return home grunting and collapsing to eat protein and bread and collapse into bed. Witnessing the widening gap between us is painful – the lost time for him to speak or read or write or reflect as he slugs out a sustenance wage while he can is horrible. We still manage a grin and chuckle some days and I have finally learnt to say the most important phrase in Tamil. I can’t believe it took me 7 years to realise that “You eat?” is more important than any of the noble slogans I wrought into fabric in my craftivist years.

I am one of the beneficiaries of the lockdown in many ways. I am able to work from home – which is a large suburban bungalow with a garden where I can sit with the cat and enjoy the fleeting sunlight. I haven’t ventured further than a 2km radius from my home for nearly 2 months – and really I don’t need to: I have shops, a GP, a physiotherapist, a vet, parks, a creek and even friends all within walking distance. Not many people do. I have great broadband and enough electronic equipment to competently communicate via zoom with friends and colleagues in Melbourne, interstate and overseas. I run a regular drawing group via zoom and twice a week I gather with the yoga group who I have participated with for nearly 10 years (apart from winters). the digital divide is a cliche: but it marks a stark and new class division: between those who can operate in the new online economy and social cultures of working from home and those who cannot.

I have really enjoyed the benefits of staying home and venturing out to a world full of masked up hand washing physically distanced people.

This is the first winter in 3 decades where I haven’t spent a week in bed wheezing my way through a heavy cold/flu/bronchitis.

After last years horror 7 rounds of bronchitis I have been consulting with a respiratory specialist at a nearby hospital. During our last video appointment I noted the massive difference this year, and she concurred that there have been far fewer hospital cases of flu or pneumonia generally.

However,

The only remaining member of my immediate nuclear family is living in a nursing home in Melbourne.

Thank dog I bought her a newish iPhone at Xmas and taught her to use facetime in March before the first lockdown. A 20 minute video call each few days where I stare at the light behind her head and maybe her forehead while trying to show her the garden or the house is a poor substitute for the weekly visits where I could just hang out for a few hours, but it’s better than nothing. Thank dog that she went into an institution with physical disabilities not cognitive impairments or the digital illiteracy of most of the much older residents. She (and her sisters) are part of the generation of second wave feminists who took to iPads in their 70s and are confident with online banking and shopping, and able to replace phone calls with emails as their hearing deteriorates.

However, the condensed pressure of videocalling; trying to compress time into a live stream of digitised interaction is exhausting. Mum and I habitually spend a lot of time in silence… enjoying the gaps between words; the shared views of books, plants, the taste of tea or shared chocolates… my own weird bustling as she orders me around like a living puppet which is quite fucked actually but I have had and will have therapy for that. It’s a relationship that I have cherished for the past 5 years since she moved into a Melbourne nursing home.

Do I need to mark some space for my disgust and rage at our prime minister describing aged care homes as palliative care?

Clearly he hasn’t read Levinas or he would appreciate that all of life is an antechamber of death. And in that antechamber, life is the constant daily refusal of death; the will to breathe, to seek out other life, to connect, to create.

I haven’t read Levinas (or any other philosophy) in a while. I schlepp my books between bookcases and avoid the study housing my “professional library” using bright wallhangings as my zoom backdrop. It’s not just deteriorating eyesight – I am burdened by a massive grief at moving away from the career where I invested 15 years of my life and so much hope. The university sector is devouring itself and devouring the scholars and thinkers who had a vocational commitment to universities as a place for knowledge creation and sharing.

My scholarship and research ground to a halt when I had an ongoing lectureship. It was at a private institution where after 6 months I realised that the only space for any knowledge creation was in completing a Cert IV TAE while resisting the culture of isolation and bullying and threats of sacking that eventually drove out most of my colleagues and myself.

Casual staff are even more precarious this semester: now getting our contracts after semester starts – with reduced hours and reduced pay, and an expectation that we have a digitised home office to teach from. Permanent staff are scrambling with threats of redundancy and much higher workloads. There is barely a pretence of a scholarly meritocracy. I think my heart got finally broken participating in a group of rank and file academics trying to oppose the union led push for academics to accept a wage cut. Witnessing the hackneyed games of silencing dissent and manipulating process to produce an effect of accord that I lived through THIRTY YEARS AGO was horrifically boring. In my somnolence I accepted a contract to teach into a course I had previous run – at a fifth of the amount offered previously. The amount covers the cost of sitting through half of the three hour zoom seminars taught by another permanent colleague and marking the assignments when they come in. It’s a piteous valedictory of my academic career.

But I am lucky

I have a way out. Back into a sector that is fraught with precarity and completely gutted by the COVID lockdowns. But I am working with friends for an NGO that has funding for the next few years.

So I have enough income and enough work for the next 12 months. And this is the fourth time I have been able to say that in my entire adult life. The first time was when I had a 12 month honorarium as a student union official. The second time was when I had my PhD stipend. The third was another 12 month funded research position straight after my PhD.

I am so relieved that I have signed up for health insurance. Also because my teeth and bones are crumbling.

My biggest expenses after rent and food are medical equipment, treatment and products, and I don’t see this changing any time soon, or even after lockdown.

Living with the immanence of death has various modalities.

There is the torpor of waiting; of enduring, lying with pain, drugging, numbing, waiting and subsisting within a carapace that constantly reminds us of its fallibility. Bingewatching, binge-eating, binge-drinking…. numb slow soggy release and escape….

There is the hot burn of fighting death, the rage of fighting pain; burying ourselves in distraction, in work, in working out. In saying “NO!! ARRIERE MORTE!” this is fleeting adrenaline fuelled fight or flight that leads to more collapse back into torpor. I bury myself in spreadsheets or work admin; drag myself out for pounding walks, compulsively log my calorie intake, and get gruffer and fiercer and fight with friends and I watch other friends do the same so I know it’s not just me.

And then there are moments of light. Seeing a friend’s smile. Seeing my own smile. The fleeting moments of creativity together. Finding ways to laugh or dance through the computer or phone screen but preferably outside it. I have realised that my own creativity is absolutely dependent on living  relationships of connection and interaction.

My yoga teacher cites Vedic texts describing the three states which broadly align to the configuration I have described above. South Asian friends constantly remind me that the engagement I have with white yoga through my computer screen is as limited and derivative as my own mispronounced snatches of Tamil language. (Yes, no, hello! what? how are you? did you eat? thank you, count to ten)… So I note this with respect and caution.

Yesterday afternoon was cataclysmic; after a sunny day, hot winds swirled cold as the sky darkened and trees bent double and clatters and creaked resounded through the house. I’d had a few days of manic driven intensity; typing documents; fielding phone calls and emails, (mis)managing work crises and being unable to sleep more than 4 hours a night. At 6pm I crawled to my yoga mat hoping for release, putting my phone on flight mode so the zoom session wouldn’t be interrupted.

Facetime was still active and Mum tried calling twice. she doesn’t often call.

I couldn’t continue pranayama. I logged off and checked my phone. in between the flurry of text messages from friends and workmates about everything and anything and nothing. I noted missed calls from Mum and the nurse on her floor. I called Mum back.

The plague has reached her nursing home. She’s OK, the staff wear face shields as well as masks, but dinner was late and everyone was scared. I reminded her that I had posted a package of books and the finest Crosswords that the almost bare shelves of the Pascoe Vale newsagent could provide.

I called back her nurse, a Nigerian migrant who is caring and intelligent and no doubt as scared as all of his colleagues on temporary visas, giving so much care to strangers who are so loved by people they never get to touch anymore.

The nursing home CEO sent their official statement by 9pm.

I felt the feeling in the pit of my stomach, remembered my instinct to video record a segment of the previous video call with Mum, and started crying.

Other people have it worse. In one of the work zoom calls, someone received a phone call that their parents were diagnosed with COVID.

Each day private tragedies are playing out across Melbourne and across the world.

But this is shitty and sad and hard.

I am reminded of my attempts to translate “hope” into Tamil. It is somewhat fitting a community that has faced genocide and exile doesn’t have an equivalent word. The nearest approximation sounds like “nambikkal” but it’s literal meaning is closer to “just keep going”. And that’s all I can do.

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