IIt’s about a year since the skies over San Francisco turned red due to smoke from wildfires in the surrounding areas, a strange reminder of Sydney’s Black Summer in late 2019 and early 2020. Now there’s a different kind of echo. grim, as Sydney goes further locked in the clutches of a new wave of coronavirus. Here in California we are cautiously removing our masks and trying to remember how to talk to friends face to face.
Meanwhile, in a horrible reversal, I see my friends and family in Sydney experiencing something like what we did in March 2020, when the schools closed, the shelter-in-place order went into effect and there was no certainty about how long would last. And how bad it would get
The uncertainty was the hardest part. It was a monotonous tension that was always there, even when he was drowning for a moment from the acute horror of hearing the latest death statistics or the numbing boredom of waiting in line for an hour to go to the supermarket. Just as it is now impossible for Sydney parents to imagine having to ‘homeschool’ for weeks, it was unthinkable for us in 2020 that schools could be closed for the entirety of March and into April. We had returned to Berkeley from Sydney in February 2020; my teenager had to go back to school for two weeks before it closed. Surely he would not miss another month? Two months? The year dragged on until June, beyond the end of the school year, and yet the lockdown persisted. We passed so many milestones: a month; two months; hundred days; Two Hundred; stopped counting.
Now, I read about Year 12 students in Sydney studying for their final exams, free from all the usual props and routines. We hope they find their way, find a way, as if we really believe the scandalous fiction that a Zoom meeting reproduces a classroom. It feels like there is no other option.
I wish I had some excellent advice on how to survive this endless bad dream. I have some good recipes for playdough and slime to make at home with the kids, and a great recipe for a Sazerac cocktail, and a warning that drinking too many Sazeracs with a hint of Covid stress can send you to the ER with an ulcer from fledgling stomach, and then all you can drink at cocktail hour is a chalky white liquid called “Geri-lanta.”
The lessons learned from this time are still developing, and I have a feeling that I may have been a bad student. I refused to uncritically celebrate “resilience” when it seemed like just another word to accommodate the impossible and inhumane demands of capitalism. I despise toxic positivity and have criticized “radical acceptance” even when circumstances forced me to bow to inevitability in many ways. My teenage son rarely finds things on the Internet as fun as I do, but he loved a cartoon that appeared on my social media recently: a woman lying on the road in the path of a huge semi-trailer with the caption: “Accept the things that you can’t. ‘t control, ”a mantra he has come to detest after 18 months of not being able to go to school.
Other people proudly embarked on reading Proust as I watched my ability to concentrate evaporate, along with any sense of time, after a few weeks in the closet. Our energetic four-year-old didn’t know how to sit in front of a Zoom screen for hours a day in preschool in remote learning mode, and after two weeks of feeling like a failure as parents, we gave up. Every day I accepted the further radical contraction of the possibility of my own writing, I watched my own experience relate to the statistics of women everywhere quitting paid work. Was I laying my body in front of the oncoming truck? Trying to get my kids out of their way? Still no way to know.
By now there must be a compound word in German for the peculiar feeling of resentment when others complain about their confinement, which doesn’t seem to be as bad as yours. I watch my exhausted Melbourne friends rage at the way the media portrays the Sydney closure as the worst ever. In one meme, Mel Gibson sits in jeans next to a bruised and bloodied Jesus wearing a crown of thorns, a picture from the set of Gibson’s Christ movie with the caption: “Sydney talking to Melbourne about the confinement.”
Where would California be in this picture, I wonder? I imagine a woman standing on the edge of the picture, almost out of frame, in front of a pile of 500,000 corpses, perhaps a field of crucified victims or giant refrigerated morgue trucks. She wears a kind of tired “hold my beer” expression, and has been standing there for 400-something days, and her feet and heart are alternately numb and excruciatingly in pain.
This feeling of resentment, this competitive suffering, is shown to me as another face of the trauma of the confinement. It’s another way in which this whole nightmare tests our capacity for compassion, for others, for ourselves.
The only idea I hope to convey is this: there are no happy closings. But each confinement is unhappy in its own way. Whatever your confinement experience, it belongs to you and no one else can truly understand it. The unpredictable difficulty of disconnection. The times when your sense of self-satisfaction that you are helping others by staying home is drained and you feel lonely, or angry, or helpless, or completely scared by the quiet streets, or filled with grief from the loss of things. that seem trivial but turn out to be the opposite.
Those things are seeing us again here, thanks to the vaccine. Things we took for granted, like an open door at the local library or a playground not blocked by danger tape like a crime scene.
Every unhappy confinement has its own unpredictable moments of delight in the little things. My social media pages are filled with images of excessively, outrageously pretty and fleeting pink magnolias, impatient for spring, photographed by Sydney friends on their short excursions from home. The urge to document these fleeting moments feels familiar, not to hide the difficulty, but to accept a momentary interruption of joy at your side. I came to embrace that urge: At some point, a hundred days later, it stopped feeling like denial. The natural world’s indifference to human suffering has never felt so comforting. Scary, humiliating, and sometimes accidentally beautiful.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism