I’ve been thinking about this pandemic. How both unexpected and inevitable it always was.
Thinking about Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. For me, modern novels that match it include Geraldine Brooks’ excellent Year of Wonders, and Helen Dunmore’s The Siege. How does one know we’ve reached the point when it’s time to stash away that one jar of honey to save the child we love?
I’m not a natural spiller and so I won’t go into any details, but this global event is happening at a time of significant personal upheaval for me, and it’s odd to have the two so enmeshed. My personal circumstances mean that I am experiencing the world pain I see and read about every day in a more immediate way. Though I don’t want to confuse the two. Especially because I am very aware of my own position of relative privilege.
I’m thinking about the people who don’t have homes to shelter in. The class dynamics of this pandemic are stark, as are the geopolitical dynamics. I’m thinking about the refugees in immigration detention in Australia and around the world. I’m thinking about the recent round-up of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. I’m thinking about indigenous communities in Australia where underlying health conditions like type 2 diabetes and renal disease mean that elders in those communities are particularly vulnerable. The gender dynamics are stark too. I’m particularly thinking of women and children who don’t feel safe in their homes. My personal experience with my godson and our extended family means I’m thinking about people with disabilities and their families, and how difficult social distancing and self-isolation are for people with severe autism and with intellectual disabilities. How frightening it is to think about interacting with a health system that views a beloved family member as a second-class citizen when one is at one’s most vulnerable. I’m thinking about how this sort of crisis brings out the worst in people, as well as the best. I’m thinking about people who are elderly in under-funded care homes, or alone and frightened of dying alone. Who worry that the world will never open up again, or if it does, that they will have missed the boat. I find myself falling into that same trap. I know it can’t be true and that it’s a trick of my mind not working well, but it’s a place I can easily fall into. Despair.
I’m thinking about all the people whose job it is to be on the front line: nurses, carers, support workers, doctors, hospital porters and cleaners, administrative staff, cooks, people who work in supermarkets. If I hear one more person on a podcast talk about how health care professionals are heroes I will scream. Nurses are professionals who are terribly paid. Carers and support workers don’t even receive the status of being seen as professionals while they do essential labour that has always been women’s work and disrespected accordingly. I’m also thinking about police, firefighters, paramedics: all the first responders who are absorbing society’s stress and trauma.
And I’m thinking particularly of the Australians who recently lost everything in the bushfires, and wondering what this is doing to them. Our entire country was on fire just a few short months ago. We didn’t have time to incorporate that experience and begin to respond and rebuild. And now this. How will we emerge from these two disasters?
And the massive changes that are being wrought upon the global economy mean I’ve been thinking a lot about investment. What we invest in and what it takes to invest. Both financially, and emotionally. And that good investment is necessarily a long-term strategy.
Which brings me to thinking about making art. Part of me is enjoying seeing so many people making things and sharing the fruits of their enthusiasm on social media. But that sort of spontaneous activity and immediate gratification is a world away from the process of making the art that is going to last and mean something when we look back on this time, and try to understand and integrate its significance. Most things original and excellent take time to marinate, and then to bake. As always, right now we have no idea what will stand the test of time, because first, art needs to stand the tests of fashion and privilege and politics before time gets its hands on it. But on top of that I think Spinoza is right and that “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” Great art rarely falls out of its makers easily or quickly, and if it does, that’s only because the artist has spent a lifetime preparing for it, one way or another. Sometimes that preparation is conscious apprenticeship, and sometimes (though rarely) it’s an unconscious schooling.
And in that spirit I’ve been thinking of Tim Conigrave and Dorothy Porter, two Australian writers, now dead, that I was fortunate enough to know, and the excellent books they left behind that shaped the way Australia sees itself: Holding the Man and The Monkey’s Mask. These books were written in the 90s during the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I was thrilled to see Nigel Featherstone mention them recently on Twitter and hope it will introduce them to a new generation of readers.
Lastly, I’d like to share a poem that says something to me about the way the human mind works under stress, and about what making art can cost. I read this as a poem about the constant struggle between hope and despair. And I like it a lot because it’s a rogue Mary Oliver poem – it just doesn’t read like her at all.
Hardly a day passes I don’t think of him
in the asylum: younger
than I am now, trudging the long road down
through madness toward death.
Everywhere in this world his music
explodes out of itself, as he
could not. And now I understand
something so frightening, and wonderful –
how the mind clings to the road it knows, rushing
through crossroads, sticking
like lint to the familiar. So!
Hardly a day passes I don’t
think of him: nineteen say, and it is
spring in Germany
and he has just met a girl named Clara.
He turns the corner,
he scrapes the dirt from his soles,
he runs up the dark staircase, humming.
Mary Oliver, from ‘Dream Work’, 1986.