Rhythms

A view of the River Derwent taken from Blinking Billy Point in Hobart, Tasmania

How’s everyone going out there? You doing okay?

Here in Hobart, we have just reached the end of Week Three at home. There are days when it feels like we have really hit our stride and settled into this new rhythm… and then there are those other days, where every minute feels like a fight.

In one of his recent posts on the MONA blog, David Walsh wrote: “I was happy to stay at home, until I had no choice but to stay at home.”

This resonates so much.

In truth, our lockdown life doesn’t look hugely different to how we normally live. DorkyDad and I both work from home all year round. DorkySon would be on his Easter holidays just now anyway. None of us are big socialisers. But the removal of choice has been an adjustment, as has the unending monotony of the days. It leaves a lot of time for overthinking.

We remain deeply grateful for all our privileges – indoor space, outdoor space, a full pantry and, of course, our health – but even with those advantages and an awareness of how lucky we are, we’ve been unable to escape the constant feeling of impending doom, the sense that the world is collectively holding its breath and waiting for the indefinable moment when things will start to turn.

*

There have been tears aplenty in the last few weeks. We heard the icebreaker Aurora Australis honk its great horn as it came up the River Derwent for the final time: tears. We watched news footage of the COVID-19 response in the US, where so many of our friends live: tears. Wholesome family movie on the sofa: tears. A shelf full of English Breakfast teabags and instant coffee – neither of which I drink, both of which I bought for my Dad’s cancelled visit: tears. We are trying to be gentle and kind with each other, to not spend every waking moment talking about the state of the world, and to let those tears fall as they need to.

We made the decision early on that I would remain the designated family shopper. The shop that I do daily under normal circumstances has dropped to twice a week. Once for food only, and once for food and the other bits and bobs that a family of three considers essential: printer paper, books, dental floss, envelopes.

Those shopping trips in the city are so disconcerting. To see Salamanca Place with no cars parked there, only the autumn leaves swirling across the pavers. To see so many cafes and shops with their shutters down. To be the only person in the small local grocery store, or, alternatively, to brave the bigger store and spend twenty stressful minutes doing the coronadance, ducking and diving and smiling apologetically as we all try and maintain the necessary distance. People are, for the most part, so nice, and so kind. But the weirdness is inescapable, and I usually have to take a few quiet moments in the car to recompose before heading back to the house.

*

One big change I’ve noticed at home is that we are each starting to trust our own moods. All three of us are used to living a life where we have a non-negotiable list of things to be achieved each day. Freelance life brings a level of flexibility that DorkyDad and I both enjoy, but it’s still very outcome-focused. You have a job to do, so you do the job. Then you move onto the next one. Similarly, at school, DorkySon knows with certainty what his days will look like, and what he needs to achieve before each week is out.

Three weeks in, we are finally starting to relax out of that mindset a little.

There have been happy and productive days: days when we have sat at our desks and committed to a couple of hours of work; when we have chopped and stacked firewood and pushed it up the steep driveway in the wheelbarrow; when we have planted garlic or weeded the garden or harvested apples; when we have grabbed our mops and dusters and cleaned the house from top to bottom.

There have also been days when none of us could reach far enough down the well of motivation to do much at all. On those days we have played cricket on the oval over the road, mindlessly scrolled the internet, and taken more long, hot baths than you would ever think possible.

The other change has been an increased understanding that each of us is handling this in the best way possible, and that our needs and tolerances – for information, for organised activities, for alone time – are very different. We have realised that what works well for one of us at any given moment will not necessarily work for all of us.

DorkyDad is still watching the Tasmanian Premier’s press conference each morning. I am not. I stopped about ten days ago. Instead, I use that time to do yoga in my office, trying not to bang my head on the desk during downward facing dog. Some days I do targeted sessions for my upper back and shoulders, where I have always carried the weight of the world (or perhaps just where I have always hunched up against the cold). Other days I do a more general session. It is quite different to the weekly Pilates class that is usually my go-to exercise, but I am enjoying it ­ ­– both mentally and physically – and hope that I can find a way to keep space for it in my routine when things go back to normal.

Apart from the long beach walks that we do as often as possible, the only other exercise I’m doing is cycling with DorkySon. I have never been so grateful for my bike, for that beautiful feeling of freedom and speed when I fly along a dirt track and forget about everything except the pedals turning and the wind on my cheeks.

Beyond that… well, we have finally given in and subscribed to Netflix. DorkySon is catching up on two series of Drive to Survive, which are very welcome in the absence of any live F1 races. DorkyDad has been watching dozens of episodes of Game of Thrones. I’m finding that my tolerance for noisy nonsense on the gogglebox is even lower than normal, so I’m mainly sticking to books, although I’m finding it frustratingly hard to concentrate. Novels seem to be a better bet than non-fiction for now.

I’m also struggling to be creative in any way. While DorkyDad sits and plays his uke, and DorkySon builds another magnificent Lego creation, I’ve been trying to write. But the words definitely aren’t flowing. I thought that editing might be easier, and with that in mind I opened the 75,000-word document that I braindumped during last year’s NaNoWriMo, planning to do some work there. I was wrong. Editing isn’t any easier. There were more tears.

But DorkyDad and I have both overcome our fear of video to record lockdown readings. He read a chapter of Minnie Darke’s novel The Lost Love Song for Read Tasmania’s Lockdown Reading Group, and I read a poem for The Island Review’s Island Readings series. So that is something.

*

In general, we have all been happiest on the days when we have spent a lot of time outside. We have been lucky so far that the autumn weather has been pretty good. There has been a sprinkling of snow on kunanyi, and one of the beach walks a few days ago required us to dig our puff jackets out of the cupboard for the first time this year. But the days have mostly been dry and bright.

The pademelons that I posted about previously seem to have moved out. DorkySon was watching out the window – on one particularly boring day, he started a diary of all the activity happening on our road – and he happened to spot the baby pademelon hopping over to the oval. We were worried. There were dog walkers, kids playing footie, and enough cars still out on the roads that we didn’t want to watch it try to make the return journey. We haven’t seen either of them since, and assume they have made their way to the bushland just beyond.

But there has been plenty of other wildlife in the neighbourhood. A green rosella perched in the neighbour’s bottlebrush tree; an adult sulphur crested cockatoo on our roof, regurgitating food for a juvenile; and, just as we were heading out to get our flu shots, a flock of yellow tailed black cockatoos passing overhead, crooning gently.

Chatting about the natural world also seems to be one of the main ways to stay connected with my communities across the world at the moment. Friends in Edinburgh send through photos of the cherry blossom that is blooming on the Meadows, while in Hertfordshire it seems the bluebells are out in the woods.

On a family email list, we always start – so British – with an observation about the weather. Sometimes we include notes about the phase of the moon, or the recent high tides. On the phone, Dad talks about the resident blackbird, Dopey, and about the otter that has recently moved into the garden. On YouTube, I watch videos from the nightcam that a friend has set up in the Borders, capturing footage of badgers playing outside their sett, and on Instagram I hit like on the photos of sunsets and beach finds that my older brother uploads from Uist.

Perhaps the resilience that was built by that island childhood is finally coming in handy. My sister-in-law sent through a video this week of my other brother shining a torch beam on the wall of their Edinburgh flat, my young niece and nephew chasing it like cats with a laser beam. I was transported back to the power cuts we used to have on Harris, the smell of candles, and of bread being toasted on the coal fire.

This situation is not easy for anyone, but perhaps for those of us who grew up on islands, who are used to giving ourselves over to the elements – the ferries that don’t sail, the planes that don’t fly, the shop shelves that remain empty – it is not quite such a foreign experience as it might be.

*

It is so human to compare. To diminish your own experience and to chide yourself because there are others who have it worse.

At the moment, there are others who have it worse. Those who are sick, or dying. Those who love someone who is sick or dying. Those who are working on the frontline, or who have lost their jobs and do not know how they’ll make next month’s rent.

But even knowing that, I think it is important for us all to acknowledge the smaller, less important losses that we are dealing with. We have to allow ourselves these tiny griefs. It’s okay to feel how we do.

DorkySon, who at Christmas time decided to retire his hippo lovey from service, has brought him back out of the cupboard. It is his way of admitting that he needs a little extra comfort and security just now.

As I sit and write this, I glance at my calendar, at the April that has taught me to write down future plans in pencil. My black marker pen and bright pink highlighter mark school holidays, the duration of Dad’s visit, birthday parties, festivals, work trips to Sydney and Canberra, coffee meetings, meals with friends, book launches… They look so cheerful. All were cancelled. I will be glad when we turn the calendar over to May.

*

Last week, I had to remove one of my rings. (There were tears, again.) It’s one that I have worn day and night for the last 14 years, bought by DorkyDad in New York when I was in Ramallah, and gifted to me when we met up back in Edinburgh. Back when we travelled internationally without even thinking about it.

I have switched to more soothing soaps, taken to moisturising my hands multiple times a day, dropped the antibacterial gel and wipes from my routine… and yet the skin on that one finger became so raw and itchy, before starting to peel off in great flakes, that I couldn’t persevere. The ring will live in a bowl on my bedside table until this is over.

The only other time I’ve had to remove that ring – along with my wedding and engagement ones – was during the dark days of early motherhood and postnatal depression, when the hormonal fluctuations left my skin sensitive to everything. That was another period of life, so far in the rearview mirror now, when I felt like I was living in a fog. It was a time with no end in sight, when it was impossible to keep a sense of perspective, when I wondered if I would ever feel normal again.

It did end though. Of course it did. With love and help and support and community. And on the other side there was happiness and laughter, a feeling of lightness, and a greater sense of connection and wellbeing that I had ever had before.

When I look down at my hands now – when I am crammed into my office trying a new yoga pose, or typing at my computer, or turning the pages of a book – the space where the ring should be, the red skin so bright and shiny it almost looks like a brand… that is my tiny mark of grief. It symbolises every sadness from the last few weeks.

It is also my reminder to hope. My reminder that this will end. My reminder that things will get better.

17 responses

  1. Oh, sweetie, I’ve had lots of hot baths too, my writing isn’t coming either so am making pottery. maybe you could try different creativity for now? And yet…your words do come – this is beautifully written

    • I can’t wait to see how you go with pottery – how fabulous! I feel like I’ve had a bit of an energy burst with writing over the weekend – now it’s just a question of finding peace and quiet to get it on paper! You’ll need to train me in your early bird habits! Xxx

  2. I shall into this, nodding, smiling, crying a little. It resonates so much and you are right, we must allow ourselves to grieve our own losses. I had to remove my wedding ring for a while but it’s back on my finger now and that feels like one small step towards the light xxx

  3. Thank you Ruth for describing so eloquently what many of us may feel but haven’t the words to make sense of the extent of depth. Brought me to tears both in grief and uncertainty for what’s next, till then my mantra remains, ‘one day at a time.’ Big hugs to you and yours. x

  4. I’ve enjoyed your Twitter feeds and now delighted to have picked up your blog. Although I am older, retired and we are not going out shopping so many of your experiences resonate. I think I’ve also said in the past that we have very fond memories of Tasmania!
    Best wishes to you and your family

  5. Pingback: 12 great reads… that have nothing to do with COVID19 – Ruth Dawkins Freelance Writer

  6. Sounds like you’re weathering this time well, Ruth. I’ve had a mantra since this began: every day, yoga, cooking, walking, reading. Seems to be getting me through, just about. Sending love from Sheffield from me, Gregory and Clara x

  7. No need to worry about your writing Ruth – another lovely post; but I completely understand though – I have very little focus and concentration (although some has come back now), and reading is the only thing I am able to do right now, and like you, reading fiction that is…. and I say exactly the same thing to my clients about not discounting their feelings – we are experiencing a collective grief at the moment… X

    • Collective grief is a good way of putting it – I know that’s a known phrase, but I’m finding it fascinating how our vocabulary is evolving to deal with some of the feelings and experiences at the moment xx

  8. Pingback: Settling « Dorkymum | Stories from Tasmania

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