On this day two years ago, I had my final radiotherapy treatment. I wrote about my final treatments and the effects on my body at that time, noting that it was “getting boring” and that I wasn’t going to write about it anymore.
That was true for then, but what I wasn’t to know then was that two years later there are still lingering after-effects. When writing about my experience of cancer, I was reluctant to call it a ‘journey’. It’s such a hackneyed phrase, but also one I didn’t want to think of as relevant to me. I didn’t want a cancer journey, I wanted it to be done/finished/over. I wanted to close the chapter on that short part of my life and move on.
But it isn’t over; the chapter isn’t closed. The journey, such as it is, continues.
Not in big, sweeping gestures or debilitating treatments but in subtle ways that slink in around the edges, catching me off-guard.
I drive to one of four annual check-ups (breast surgeon, medical oncologist, radio oncologist, mammogram/ultrasound) and fight the rising panic by calling my daughter Emma or my sister Debbie. Emma drove me to many of my treatments and then to work or to home afterwards and can visualise where I am and that familiarity adds to the comfort she provides. Debbie takes me through the 5-4-3-2-1 technique forcing my focus elsewhere, away from the panic.
I take a pill everyday to help ensure the cancer doesn’t return. I try my hardest to get the same brand each month, but if it’s unavailable and I have to take a different brand my joints begin to ache within a few days, my legs swell, I get dizzy, my vision worsens.
I mention it to my radio oncologist at my annual check-up in March. She says many of her patients have noted the same thing. I’m glad it’s not just me; I was beginning to think it was all in my mind. She examines me and is surprised by the amount of pain I experience at her touch. ‘Things often start to get better from the 2-year mark’ she tells me. I’m sure she told me that at the end of the first year too.
My mammogram and ultrasound results have been fine so far. I am doing well. There is no need to worry.
So they say.
And then I let myself think of this as a journey … I know the starting point, that moment when I felt the lump for the first time. The six weeks that felt like many more between then and getting a diagnosis. The surgery, the healing, the radiotherapy, the pills, the annual checks, the regular massages, the lingering, push-it-to-the-furtherest-corner-of-your-mind fear that pops out every now and then … if this is a journey, what’s the destination?
I think about that for a while and decide that wellness is the destination.
If this is a journey, I want it to be a hopeful one. One with a destination I can look forward to. One I don’t ever want to go on again, but one I can think back on and feel comfortable in how I lived it.
I don’t want to pretend it’s all sunshine and roses, but it’s also not a journey full of menace or foreboding.
One year and one week ago I started working from home.
It was new then. Novel. Needed. We were unsure how long the situation would last. Time slowed down and then sped up; March dragged, while it seemed we raced through April. Then the year tumbled into some sort of mud pool … there were moments of clarity, and then in the middle of the year the situation became dire. Life changed.
I started my working from home days with my computer on a trestle table in Mum’s/Deb’s/Emma’s room. It stayed that way for 12 months, before I decided I needed a proper set-up. It means I now have a proper desk, with space for my monitors, somewhere to hang my headphones, a place for my morning cuppa, a different place for my water bottle, and a place for photos of my grandkids. I also have a bookcase behind me which has been expertly styled by the very stylish Alison. She happened to pop in on the day the bookcase arrived and was gracious enough to lend her considerable talent to elegantly arranging the items I dragged out of cupboards for her to approve (or not, as the case may be). It provides a carefully curated background to my meetings and more importantly provides me with a beautiful place to work.
My office is now neat, stylish, and slowly filling up with indoor plants. I have a heater, music available, a printer should I require it and a window – a door no less, to the outside world. There’s a huge tree out there and on stormy days, I sit here watching the branches being flung about like countries in the time of corona.
An email drops into my inbox. My workpace announces it is a ‘located’ workplace. After a year of being told we would be able to continue to work from home should we choose, we now have a new term to add to our list of new terms we’ve collected in the previous 12 months, and are being encouraged to return to campus … to add to its vibrancy. I sit and think for a nanosecond and decide that sitting in a cold office with no natural light, no view of a tree being thrashed around in the wind, no music swirling around me, is not for me. I’m quite comfortably located where I am. I’ll let others, those who have been working from their bedrooms or dining room tables, wrangling children and dogs and cats during Zoom meetings, make up the 75% allowed back into workplaces.
Life has changed since this time last year when a number of state premiers announced statewide lockdowns would commence on Monday March 23. The Prime Minister then announced a national lockdown. Toilet paper became scarcer than hen’s teeth; pasta and flour were also hard to come by.
It seems, though, that it’s changed for some more than others – often depending on location. I was fortunate enough to go to Tasmania over the summer. I spent a month there, something I wouldn’t have thought possible in the depths of last year’s winter. It was fabulous to be in a place where the fear of COVID was kept in a small place in the back of my mind. Social distancing was a thing people paid attention to, checking-in to cafes was part of the experience, and hand sanitiser was readily available in all shops … but, these are part of what has been termed ‘COVID-normal’. There was a time when we didn’t have to go through security at airports – and it’s now normal. Some of these new behaviours might also become ‘normal’ and we won’t think twice about taking a mask with us wherever we go.
Although, that depends where you are. When I was in Tasmania over the summer, I didn’t think about taking a mask anywhere. As of today, March 14, 2021, Tasmania has remained COVID-free for 92 days. There was a ‘blip’ in December 2020, when four new cases were reported in Tasmania (from a family returning on a repatriation flight) but if you take those cases out of the equation, it really hasn’t had an outbreak since May last year. That’s really quite remarkable in a world overrun it seems by COVID.
Life has changed. The ebb and flow of 2020 saw various members of the family exercising together and then not. It saw some of us involved in photography projects and then not. It saw visits to family in other states planned and then cancelled. It saw low points and lower. It saw the spead of misinformation, daily press conferences by Daniel Andrews and a tide of people expressing disappointment, disgust, distress at much of the reporting emerging from those pressers. It saw less – less going out, less contact with others, less exploration – and for us, less television watching, less reading, less …
In my first blog post in the time of COVID, I wrote
It seems we’re in this for the long haul – a few months rather than days. Perhaps even longer. I’m sure we’ll work out how to live in this disrupted world, but it might take a while.
Has your world continued to be disrupted, and if so, have you worked out how to live in it?
Late last year I spoke with about a dozen small groups of Year 9 students from a local high school. It was part of a program called Future Me; a program designed to help Year 9 students develop a range of ‘enterprise skills’, one of which is communication. In groups of 4 or 5, students spoke with a range of university staff, asking the staff questions about their schooling, their jobs, their career pathways.
A few of the groups asked me what had been my favourite subject at school. That really made me stop and think.
I ended up being honest with them and told them that I hadn’t liked high school much and I didn’t have a favourite subject. They were surprised that someone teaching at university didn’t like high school; hopefully it helped them realise that high school experiences don’t necessarily define your whole life – although in Year 9 it sure feels like they do.
If I’d thought about it some more, I may have said that English was one of my favourite subjects. The problem with it wasn’t the subject, but the teacher. I didn’t like my English teacher. He was punitive and I didn’t like his attitude. For the record, he didn’t like mine either.
Art was good because we sometimes got the opportunity to travel to Sydney to the Art Gallery of NSW – as well as other places – and I enjoyed that. But I didn’t like my Art teacher. She was punitive and I didn’t like her attitude. She really really didn’t like mine!
One of the times I was thrown out of Art class, I saw a boy being caned by a punitive woodwork teacher.
We had weekly assemblies and one of the teachers would patrol around the assembled students checking to see if the boys were wearing the right sort of socks. There were consequences for those who weren’t. Punitive ones.
It was the 1970s and I guess punitive was an educational fad back then. I like to think it isn’t one anymore …
It’s easy to be punitive though, and some still think it’s better for children and young people if their teachers are punitive, if they rule through fear. I read a comment on a ‘tell us about your favourite teacher’ blog from a man who said that getting the cane ‘certainly kept us focussed on doing the right thing’. I wonder if it helped with his learning?
Even back then schools weren’t only about learning – well, not in the academic sense. We sure learnt stuff, but lots of it wasn’t part of the official curriculum. Boys learnt to wear the ‘right’ socks, girls learnt that to get ahead they had to be ‘nice’, ‘polite’, ‘compliant’. Boys learnt not to cry; in fact, many boys learnt not to have emotions at all, or that some emotions were bad and therefore shouldn’t be part of their repertoire. Happy was a legitimate emotion as long we you didn’t have too much of it, and if you were tall and good looking and a favourite with the teachers, you could have pride and conceit in your bag of emotions as well, but others, like sadness or disappointment, were to be internalised or just avoided altogether.
Boys learnt that if you did the wrong thing, you were hit by an adult weilding a stick – and your parents generally thought that was an okay thing to do too. Girls learnt that if you spoke up about things that didn’t feel right – like boys being hit by stick-weilding adults – they were sent out of the room, or to that space behind the classroom door where your only companions were spiderwebs and dust.
I would have thought that these days punitive was gone from schools – but it seems to be alive and well. My 13-year old grandson said ‘hello mate’ to the school principal through the year and was then forced to sit outside said principal’s office for almost 2 hours. I’m not suggesting that saying ‘hello mate’ to the school principal is the correct way to address the principal, but sitting outside his office for almost 2 hours didn’t teach Ronan a more appropriate greeting. What a great lesson he could have had in levels of formality and when it’s appropriate to refer to someone as ‘mate’ and when it isn’t. Instead, Ronan felt aggrieved and angry and now feels more negative towards the principal than he otherwise might.
We know that learning in schools is, in large part, about relationships. Being punitive doesn’t help build good ones.
What other lessons might we teach if we stop being punitive?
A number of years ago I was feeling stuck in my academic work. It seemed there was no end to what I was doing and no capacity for change on the horizon. As often seems to happen, I stumbled across a journal article that expressed exactly what I was feeling and also presented a way of thinking I hadn’t thought of for myself. That’s one thing I love about reading – you learn of other ways to think, other mindsets, other perspectives.
This particular author suggested that one way to look at the situation was to think about chapters – this is the teaching chapter of your academic life and the next chapter might be the research chapter or the leadership chapter or the something entirely different chapter. It helped me realise that my situation wasn’t going to continue in the same way for the rest of time. And sure enough, over time, the teaching chapter finished and I was able to start a new chapter.
I like metaphors and their capacity to explain a concept, though of course there’s the danger of pushing a metaphor too far. Any good author will know that there are other ways to structure a narrative than in a straight line. It’s the same with our lives, which is, in some ways, a different form of authoring. Our lives don’t travel in straight lines despite the chronology that suggests we take a straight line from one point to another.
We are born, get to be five, head to school, emerge more or less damaged by that experience some years later, and tumble into adult life. We work, we get married, we have children and so on and so forth. Or so the story goes.
But some of us combine highschool with motherhood, either as a teenager or an adult or both. Some of us don’t move through the ‘stages’, the ‘chapters’, of our lives in the right order. We have a baby and then some months later, get married. We have another baby and then finish high school. Some of us don’t do things at the ‘right’ age, and by ‘right’ I mean ‘standard’, ‘accepted’, ‘proper’, but we do them anyway.
We don’t live linear lives.
Our stories get woven around other stories, stories that have already happened, stories we thought we’d shed the skin of, stories that get tangled in our memories and in our retellings. Parts of our lives connect with other parts in ways we don’t necessarily expect; some things we thought we’d finished with re-emerge and take up space again. The re-emergences push us in directions we hadn’t ever expected and we circle back and find we’ve picked up threads of an older story and the newer threads give it added depth.
We change and develop and grow through the chapters of our lives. We cook and clean and harangue and clean and cook and nothing changes. Is it always going to be like this? A sense of hopelessness. Going through the motions. But deep within, a reluctance to accept that this is all there is. Change. Unsettling. Upsetting. Challenging. Difficult. The transition from one thing to another, from one chapter to another.
And then another.
We teach – about language and tone and purpose and audience. About human emotion expressed through movement and words and no words and space and silence. We study and learn and develop, and another new chapter starts, full of more learning and challenge and motivation and no motivation. And struggle. Personally and professionally and we feel stuck. Is it always going to be like this?
With each transition from one chapter to another, we build up who we are. In one chapter we’re a teacher, in the next we’re a teacher-educator, but then there’s the chapter that weaves research with teaching and the two parts sit uncomfortably with each other. There’s no time to do both properly and compromise is unsettling. And then the next chapter adds leadership and it’s difficult, challenging, upsetting. We feel stuck in our academic work. Is it always going to be like this?
Some chapters are so long we can’t see the end of them. The PhD chapter of our lives can be like that .. it goes on and on and on. Our energy flags, we can’t see a way through; there’s work and kids and your supervisor saying ‘just get it done’. If only it was that easy. It drags. It’s intellectually tortuous. It’s mentally draining. There’s no ounce of motivation left. It becomes a grind. Will it always be like this?
Robyn, one of my PhD candidates, was at that point this time last year. It was intellectually tortuous, mentally draining. It was a grind. Scraps of motivation lay on the ground at her feet. “Sharon, will it ever end?”.
It ended. Robyn submitted her thesis, it was examined, accepted and just last week, Robyn’s doctorate was conferred. All those years. All that work. And now she’s a doctor, by virtue of having a doctorate.
Will she use her title in the next chapter of her life?
That might not come as much of a surprise to those who know me well, but it comes as a surprise to me.
It remains a surprise, given that the realisation hits me every ten years or so. In the intervening times I simply forget.
Do you do that? Flashes of realisation about yourself, then forget, only to be reminded a year, or ten, later that, oh yes, that’s right. I forgot. I’m an idealist.
My latest revelation came after dinner at my sister’s place a year or so ago*. We got to talking about schooling and after chewing over certain parts of the conversation over the next few days, I had my flash of self-awareness.
I can’t think of any other way to say this than: for me, education (formal education) is about learning.
There. I’ve said it. That’s what it means to me.
And I’ve realised that that’s an idealistic way of thinking about formal education.
To me formal education is not primarily about:
a score on a NAPLAN test
a grade on the end of year exam
marks, and whether you get enough of them to get into university
whether you pass or fail an assignment, or a unit, or a course
To my way of thinking, formal education – whether you’re in Prep, or Grade 3, or Grade 11, or first year university – is primarily about learning.
Not grades, not marks, not passing tests, not learning enough to do well in spelling bees or at trivia nights at the local club.
Learning is challenging and requires thinking and changes of perspective and knowledge and understanding and questions: posing them as well as answering them. It requires reflection and resilience and determination and discipline.
And the bonus? Learning leads to test passing and success in spelling bees and impressing your mates at the local pub trivia. And a host of other, much more important things besides.
But it seems that schools and universities are not in the business of learning.
They are simply in business.
That’s how the education system seems to see it – and the politicians who enact educational policy. The education system is about students getting a good score in NAPLAN so that we (the rest of us outside of the education system) can hold teachers to account, so that we can hold schools to account; so that students – education’s ‘customers’ can move from high school to university, and from university into the workforce for the purpose of ensuring Australia is “internationally competitive”, economically strong, part of a culture built on consumption. That’s where growth comes from – from more of us consuming more.
There are implications of this thought process for what is taught, how it’s taught, who is taught and who does the teaching. It has implications for the kinds of expectations educators have of students and the level of responsibility given to students for their own learning.
And in this blighted landscape of education as business, education is something that is consumed. It’s a product we purchase. Universities don’t have students anymore; they have customers. And customers demand satisfaction for the goods they purchase. And customers’ purchasing should require as little effort as possible.
Customers don’t want to work for the goods they purchase. I mean, when was the last time you paid for a lipstick you had to then build from ingredients you had to source yourself, or even ones that were given to you? When was the last time you had to fry the chips you’d just paid for at the fish ‘n chippy, before taking them home to lavish with tomato sauce and consume?
Many customers of universities don’t want to have new ideas or perspectives to consider or to experience the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. They don’t want the pain of not doing well, of being uncertain, of not knowing. Some of them don’t even want the fuss of having to craft their own assignments.
Education is a business with customers to satisfy and a national economy to help grow.
It’s idealistic to cling to the idea that it’s about learning, and all learning’s attendent benefits.
And yet, I find the older I get and the more experience I have in formal education, the more I cling.
Perhaps I’ve turned into an anachronism … if I have, at least I’m an idealistic one!
* I came to my blog to write about something else entirely, and found much of this in the ‘drafts’ folder. I had the ‘I’m an idealist’ revelation again, finished the post and thought I may as well publish it.
Week 33 … I counted. I wrote my first ‘diary of a distancer‘ post on Saturday March 28, and it was subtitled ‘Week 3’.
Thirty weeks later we’re still distancing. Not as extremely as we were even a week ago – our bubble has extended from 5kms to 25 glorious, mind-blowing, spine-tingling, breath-taking kilometres and if you think I’m exaggerating that just means you haven’t lived through a Melbourne lockdown – but it’s as far afield as we can go.
And it’s glorious.
Yesterday was a public holiday. It would have been grandfinal eve public holiday, but given the grandfinal is being played in Queensland this year, it was changed to a ‘Thank You’ day. It came at just the right time for me. I was in desparate need of a day off.
It was a relatively warm day – more muggy than warm if I’m being precise, but I’ll take muggy over cold any day – and we decided to make the most of it.
We organised with Alison to head to Warrandyte – a suburb 23kms north-east of here which is leafy, has a river running through it, cafes you can line up outside of, lots of public amenities (for those game – or desperate – enough) and walking tracks that meander along the river for miles.
I said that so casually, you possibly didn’t notice, so I’ll repeat myself. “We organised with Alison to head to Warrandyte …”. We hadn’t organised with anyone to meet up and do anything for some time and while the concept wasn’t new, it was so far back in the depths of our minds that we had to fossick around back there for some time to work out what that actually meant. In practice.
It meant – not necessarily in this order – making decisions about what time to meet, what time to leave, how to get there, what to wear on our bodies, what to wear on our feet, which mask to wear, how many bottles of hand sanitiser to take, what to wear … I know I said that already but when you’re used to wearing nothing but trackies and hoodies, deciding what to wear is a big deal. For those of you who haven’t yet emerged from lockdown, don’t under-estimate how anxiety-inducing this can be.
I found a little room attached to our bedroom – I have a feeling it’s called a wardrobe but as I hadn’t used it in many months, I wasn’t quite sure that was its name although the more I said it, the more it sounded familiar. I took dresses, a thing I hadn’t worn in a very long time, from this wardrobe, tried them on, discarding one after the other until I found one that suited my purpose (to not accentuate the new bits of me that had been created by being locked down) and then decided I needed something else in case the breeze was cool in Warrandyte.
I had a vague recollection of something called a cardigan but I couldn’t easily bring it to mind nor visualise where it might be in the house. Eventually, I remembered that the white thing with handles in the corner of the bedroom is a chest of drawers that holds clothes and one of those clothes might be a cardigan. It was.
Dress on, cardigan on … I was ready.
Nope. Shoes. Slippers and trainers have been my only footwear companions for the duration and again it was more of a struggle than you might imagine to think of what shoes I owned and where they might be after all this time.
Dress on, cardigan on, shoes on … I was ready.
Nope. Mask. We have a cloth bag hanging from the loungeroom door with an assortment of washable masks, plus boxes of medical-looking masks next to the box of medical-looking gloves on the buffet in the hallway. Which one to choose? There’s lots to consider: how long you’ll be wearing it, whether you’ll be meeting anyone hence how much talking you’re likely to do hence how big it needs to be, whether you’ll be getting a cuppa and lunch hence how easily it can be taken off and put back on, how much driving you’ll be doing and if the roads are familiar (ha) hence how fogged-up it’s likely to get hence whether to use tape or not.
Dress on, cardigan on, shoes on, mask on … I was ready.
Nope. Handbag. Keys. Wallet. Hand sanitiser. Spare mask. All the things you forget you need because it’s been so long since you’ve been out, hence needed them.
When you’ve only been allowed to go 5kms from home and for only four reasons (to buy food, to seek or give medical care, for education purposes, for work purposes – work from home where possible) can you imagine what it’s like to drive for 23kms?
Exhausting. Why are there other cars? Why are they driving so close to me? Why are they honking me? I’m doing 25kms an hour, isn’t that fast enough?
And exhilarating. I’m moving at 25kms an hour!! The needle creeps up. And up. I’m doing 110kms an hour. SHARON! WE’RE IN A 60 ZONE.
Ah. Yes. Speed limits are a thing.
We went to Warrandyte yesterday. Just because we could. And so did half the population of Melbourne, and their dogs.
It was warm. The sun shone on us as we sat in the main street at the bus stop eating our lunch (no eating inside at the moment – plus, how weird is that? To sit inside with loads of other people, all eating at the same time? Nope, not ready for that yet). We sat and ate and talked with Alison. Not about anything, just talked. And it was glorious.
People wore their masks. They queued up outside cafes in orderly and socially distanced ways, they used the hand sanitiser at the doors of the cafes, they chatted about anything but the situation we’ve been living through, and at other times just sat together. They walked their dogs and watched their children play in the playground and at the edges of the river, they kayakked, ate icecream, forgot that strolling on the road wasn’t a thing you do when there are zillions of cars around, and they smiled.
We’re so close now we can smell it. And it smells good. We still might not be keen to go to the cinema in droves, or hop on a plane anytime soon to share our air with hundreds of others, and we might be wary of catching public transport or of walking into crowded shopping centres (none of which we can do just yet anyway) … but we can get together with others, we can feel a sense of freedom at the edges of our being, we can connect in ways we wouldn’t have been able to before with those who went through this too. There’s a sense of unstated knowing. It’s not something we have to talk about, we just know.
We were out yesterday for four hours. All in one go. Four hours!
It was exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure. By the end of the four hours it was mostly exhausting.
One day, sometime soon, it might even feel normal.
COVID-normal, but that’ll be normal enough for me.
Do weeks exist any more? Do months or seasons for that matter? Days do, I’m sure of that. They start, often grey here in Melbourne, and finish, just as grey. One day follows another in a regularity of routine. There’s the morning presser if I’m not in a meeting – tuning in to hear the latest from Premier Dan Andrews and CHO Prof. Brett Sutton – or CHOttie as some people have taken to calling him.
There’s lots of talk about the mental health challenges of this time of lockdown. Reading the comments during the pressers is very bad for my mental health. As is listening to many of the journalists’ questions. You’d think I’d stop doing it, but I can’t seem to help myself. I’ve even started writing my own comments. It’s not a healthy place to be, yet, there I am, tuning in like a moth unable to stop flying into the light.
Two days a week there’s my 30-minute exercise routine – the one designed by my physio to help keep arthritis at bay, to help keep my bones strong by strengthening my muscles, to help strengthen the muscles around my knees so they stop hurting, to help me develop shoulders that look like they have muscles in them. (That last one is just for my own vanity!)
I have a tendency to work through the exercises too quickly – I am my mother’s daughter it seems, at least in this regard. Last week I was given information (read ‘stern talking to’) about not allowing time for recovery in between each exercise and that being bad for my body. I have to make the workout last for 30 minutes at a minimum. I was getting it done in 20.
It was a lovely (cool but not windy) morning on Thursday. I do some of my exercises outside as I need a strong anchor point and we don’t have any inside. It was suggested that doorknobs would be sufficient, but all of ours fall off with regular monotony, so I knew not to use them. One of the trees in our courtyard/backyard is about the sturdiest anchor point we have so I tie the orange powerband around that and do rows and supported squats, and I wrap the blue theraband around it and do L Pullaparts. (No questions about the L part of that – I have no idea).
In between each rep (I use the shortened form to suggest I can speak ‘exercise’) I have to rest – for a minute. Thirty seconds at the very least.
Thursday morning, cool, not windy, I head outside armed with my exercise bands. I look around the neglected garden and decide it could do with some weeding. I get busy: 10 powerband rows – 1 minute of weeding; 10 supported squats – 1 minute of weeding. 10 L Pullaparts (they’re for my shoulders) – oh, there’s a great photo just waiting to be taken! I rush inside and grab my camera. Whoops, my rest break seeps into multiple minutes. Ten more powerband rows, more weeding.
The garden is looking much better! Who knew exercise was so good for the garden?!
I check my watch – 34 minutes. Yes! Go me. Rob, my physio, laughs fit to burst when I tell him about the weeding. He says he’ll buy me a deck chair so I can properly rest between reps in the future.
Breakfast. Porridge. Tea. I’ve taken to making tea in a teapot since I’ve been fulltime at home.
Shower – although that depends on the time – so most often not.
The commute to work takes ten seconds. Up the stairs, and into my office. I know it’s my office because it has my name on the door.
Tim has already plugged my heater in, opened the curtains and turned on the lamps. Between 10:30 & 11am he’ll pop in with a cup of tea.
I’ve taken to scheduling in a lunch/brain break each day – an hour where I eat, then read education-related Tweets and articles and learn stuff. It kinda makes up for the negativity of the comments section in the morning’s presser.
Home time – no afternoon traffic to contend with, no rain on the windscreen, no avoiding flying debris from the wind whipping through the trees. No road rage, no horns honking, no slamming on the brakes to avoid the car in front that stopped suddenly to avoid the car in front that stopped abruptly …
The commute is now calm and peaceful – a mere 15 stairs and I’m ‘home’. I don’t even need to get the front door key out. Actually, I’m not even sure where my front door key is any more. Or my car key for that matter.
When it’s not physio-exercise day and when it’s not windy, we often use our exercise hour to walk around the neighbourhood. We’ve found laneways we didn’t know existed – not the hip kind of laneways in the city; these ones don’t have graffiti-covered walls and cafes serving single origin machiato soy almond truffl-infused cold ‘brew’. These ones have cobble stones to not twist your ankle on, and high fences with little doors built in, and sometimes on the non-windy days the sounds of families playing tennis.
And then it’s Saturday. I know it’s Saturday because of the street corners. They’re abuzz in ways streets corners in my part of Melbourne had never been before this year.
People, with slight morning tremors, gather on street corners now. They stand, mostly silent, a good arm’s length or two apart, straggling across the road in some instances, masked faces staring intently at the hole in the wall.
New friendships have formed in this new, regular routine called Saturday-morning-waiting-for-my-fix-in-the-time-of-COVID. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of engagements and marriage proposals resulting from these now-regular gatherings. Each Saturday morning as we ride by, the crowds are bigger, the masks a little further down faces, a little less distance between each slightly tremoring body. More kids on bikes, more dogs on leashes, more conversation, more bike bells dinging frantically as we weave our way through them.
It’s Melbourne. They’re waiting for their coffee.
And now it’s Sunday. Father’s Day. Roadmap day. What time’s the presser? It’s the question on everyone’s lips. 12pm says the authority that is the Twitter account: What time is Dan’s presser. An account that keeps us up-to-date so we know when to tune in.
Will I tune in today?
Probably … I want to know what’s ahead. But I’ll do my very best to avoid the negativity and ignorance that is the comments section.
It is now Saturday July 4, 2020. Week 17 of my diary of a distancer posts, although I didn’t write entries for weeks 11-16.
They were tough weeks and I felt there was nothing much to communicate. Life rolled on for me; work was work; birthdays were celebrated – at a distance. Well, at a distance from me. Not being able to travel to Tasmania for the three June birthdays was tough, as was not being able to travel to NSW for my mother’s birthday.
I admit to falling into a hole I’m only now climbing out of.
It was tough in other ways too. Protests were held around the world – people protesting about being locked-in, others protesting about police brutality in the wake of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, still others protesting about racial inequality more broadly. Dissent and civil disobedience followed … and arguments flew from all sides.
One argument went this way:
Other arguments went in very different directions but I refuse to give them any space by repeating them here.
So things have been happening in some parts of the globe that affect other parts. We are, after all, living on the one planet and the ripple effects of our actions and our beliefs don’t stop at our national – or state – borders.
It’s a bit like our bodies – something happens in one area which then impacts other areas and as the ripples move around and across and through your body it feels like it’s never going to end. That there’s always going to be pain. One area subsides just for another area to flare up. The physical starts to play with the mental and the emotional and back again. And it’s ongoing and thus distressing.
Just like the current situation with coronavirus. It goes quiet, and then flares up in another hotel room/suburb/region/country. There’s no end in sight. It’s ongoing and that adds to the distress.
After a period of relative quiet, COVID-19 has re-emerged in Victoria, and so Victorians are now not welcome in other states. Except if you’re part of an AFL team. Then you can go to Queensland to ensure the season continues, but ordinary Victorians cannot enter unless they’re willing to be fined or sentenced to gaol time.
Such is life. Money talks. Sport is important, it would seem, for national well-being.
Not so The Arts it would seem. The Arts, as a sector, has been hit particularly hard by the lockdown. But there’s no other state to go to as a way of surviving – unless we’re talking a state of unemployment or sheer determined survival. Many people have turned to TV and movies for solace in this time yet many of them deny the importance of the arts to the economic or social or cultural or intellectual fabric of our society.
In many cases, the arts gives us the means to survive as well. I’m don’t mean in terms of financial support, but I mean in terms of an outlet for our creativity, for communicating, for seeing differently, for noticing, for making connections between ideas and perspectives and views and beliefs and values and thoughts and actions. And more.
And an outlet for connection with others.
Without an outlet for creative expression some of us may not have survived as well as we have through this on-going, never-ending (it seems) saga of COVID-19. While personal ‘creative expression’ might not have much to do with The Arts, I for one acknowledge the essential role the arts plays in my life.
I listen to music. I read books. I view works others have painted or photographed or sculpted or designed. I watch movies that started with an idea and grew over time, involving many (many) others in their production. People who have made artistic choices about sounds and movements and locations and backgrounds and lighting and music and no music and points of view and camera angles.
I watch and listen to others performing – dance, music, singing – and I am in awe of their determination and talent and desire for creative expression.
All of the people who make things, who produce things, design, craft and tinker and even those who, like me, play at the edges of creative endeavour … The Arts is there as a means and a reason to survive. They add something to the lives of those who spectate. They add much more to those of us who engage. They enrich us in ways simple spectating cannot do.
We are not a family of artists it has to be said, but many of us do like the creative outlet photography provides, and so I was thrilled that 15 family members contributed to our latest photography challenge: Ordinary Objects.
Our first challenge was the Alphabet of Isolation.
Our second was Images by the Dozen – a project in which we took images of the numbers 1-12 without using the actual numbers.
The Ordinary Objects project required us to photograph 10 ordinary objects:
Something you eat
Something you eat with
Something you cook with
Something you see with
Something you put on your feet
Something you wash with
Something you wear
Something you drink from
Something you find in the garden
Something (not someone) you love
Fifteen family members, ranging in age from 4-81 and across four generations, contributed. We live across four states of Australia with one family member in the UK. As with our other projects we’d get together on a Sunday night and share our images. Yet another magazine to add to our collections as a physical memento of our creative decisions and expression.
Our next project is Variations on a Theme. Six images, all of the same theme/idea of each individual’s choice, but with variations.
My theme is abandonment. It’s meant I’ve taken photos of a type I wouldn’t normally take – I’m usually quite conceptual, but this time I wanted to try something different and so have expanded my photographic range slightly.
Here’s one of the first images I took for this project. Mind you, I’ve since adandoned this image as I went in a slightly different direction … but that’s the way it goes!
Another image we drove miles to shoot, was also one I reluctantly abandoned as the church didn’t feel abandoned enough. I particularly love the Australian feel of this scene, with the gorgeous gum trees surrounding the church.
We finalise our Variations on a Theme project next week and I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone’s come up with.
Connections through creativity.
What’s kept you connected with others through these anything-but-ordinary times?
Well, not entirely. The day still happened, and I did stuff … but I didn’t write a blog post.
It was one of those beautiful autumn days we sometimes get in Melbourne: icy start but eventually warm enough to get the washing dry, a tiny waft of breeze to help the leaves spiral from the trees, and a no-cloud day which made it perfect for a late afternoon walk around the neighbourhood.
And no writing.
The week for me has felt a bit like those old cartoon backgrounds that keep repeating as the character runs across the screen. A window pops up every now and then, and then you notice the same door re-appearing and the pot plant on a stand.
The illusion of movement without any real progress.
Numbers of people out for picnics or gathering inside others’ homes.
Numbers of people wondering what life will be like when the lockdown is over … when we’re able to visit family interstate, to head out to a favourite cafe or pub, or return to our workplaces.
Some workplaces have indicated that working from home will be an option after this – possibly forever. I sincerely hope mine will be one of them. It’ll feel strange to go back to a windowless cold office now and chat face-to-face with colleagues. I can’t think why I’d want to do that or why it’s a better way of working than how I’m working at the moment.
Working from home suits me. I don’t have little children or pets to distract me, although I get my share of phone calls from my daughters asking about high and low modality words and about phonemes and graphemes. It’s not the same though as a two-year old seeking my attention as soon as I start a meeting, or a dog running around and around the couch while I’m working.
Jimmy, formally of Giggle and Hoot fame, has been keeping me entertained this week with his spot-on observations of life with little children, particularly in this era of working from home. This video applies just as much to parents working from home when their Zoom meetings start.
Sarah Cooper has also been keeping many of us entertained with her lip syncing of US President, Donald Trump’s press conferences. She doesn’t edit the audio – just does a great job of lip syncing to it. The little flourishes she adds make her videos even more entertaining.
What’s been keeping you entertained this week?
One thing that’s kept me busy – not sure how entertained I’ve been, but I’ve certainly been busy with it – is creating the magazine for our numbers project. Ten of us are engaged in a photography project – to take 12 photos of 1-12 without including the actual numbers.
The favourite image I’ve taken is my number 4:
I’d had a different idea in mind initially, so we shot that and then we started playing around with the idea. The afternoon light was beautiful and when Tim held the strawberry out in front of him, it hit the strawberry and the ends of the fork’s tines nicely. I like that – when you play with ideas and one of them works. It worked that Tim was wearing a dark hoodie too – made for a great backdrop.
Through doing this project and the alphabet one, we’ve come to an even stronger realisation of how different we are as photographers. Tim has a wonderful eye for detail. He can wander around and see things that I’d never notice in a lifetime.
I, on the other hand, plan all my shots, storyboard them and then play around with the original idea as I shoot. He’s more of an observer and documenter and I’m more conceptual in my approach. Neither is better or worse – except when I try to document what I see. That always turns out worse!
Although, having said that, two magazines I created a few weeks ago turned up this week. One is Country Shops of Victoria and Tasmania and the other is of bus stops. I am so thrilled with them. They don’t sound terribly interesting I know, but I get a little frizz of pleasure everytime I look at them. It was my attempt at documenting and I think it turned out okay.
I’m now keen to do more.
Again, a week in which connections and creativity featured heavily … and the other stuff just kept repeating in the background.
As I write, it’s May 9 2020. Many parts of the world are slowly emerging from restrictions due to the spread of coronavirus. Restrictions are beginning to ease in parts of Australia too.
Some people are concerned about this, others are cautiously optimistic that life will return to ‘normal’ soon, and others are pressuring governments to ease restrictions more quickly.
We might all ‘be in this together’ but we’re certainly not in the same boat. The same storm perhaps, but not the same boat. Everyone’s experience of lockdown/self-isolation – call it what you will – is different.
It’s alarming and distressing to read that instances of domestic violence have increased, as have calls to helplines such as LifeLine.
Through the week, I read a tragic story of a 12 year old boy in the US who hung himself in his wardrobe in mid-April. His father blames coronavirus. His view was that as his son wasn’t able to go to school or meet up with his friends, he had nowhere to put his energy (particularly his negative energy) and so took this very drastic step, perhaps, his father said, not fully realising the finality of his action.
There are other situations, just as tragic.
For some, then, this period is particularly difficult. They’re in the storm but in small boats, or boats with one oar, or boats that don’t have a lot of supplies. They’re tossed around by the waves and the wind and can find no safe anchor.
We can’t imagine that our own experience of this time is the same as others.
I’ll own that statement. I don’t imagine that my experience of this time is the same as others.
It’s why connections are so important to me. It’s important to me to stay connected – to others, to ideas, to creative pursuits, to routine, to family, to physical and mental health.
For some, unexpected connections have made this period of time less unsettling than it might otherwise have been.
ABC News Breakfast shared a story on their Facebook page of a man in Wagga, NSW who is drawing a crowd during his trombone practice. What a delight – a time for people to come together – to sit and listen, to tap their feet, to wander into the sunshine, to reminisce. Connecting the past with now, connecting memories to others, connecting sound and emotion.
There are examples of this sort of connection between people happening all around the world. If we can, we should seek them out as they can bring pockets of light into what otherwise might be a dark time.
I’ve also been struck by the connections some people are making as they seek to make some sense of this time. Poet Lorin Clarke writes from the perspective of dust motes as they watch humans spending more time at home. It’s clever, this way of seeing things from another perspective and making connections across people’s experiences. And then putting images and music and a very particular kind of voice to this, adds to that sense of connection across more than ideas – across aesthetics and art forms too.
And then there are those who can sum up experiences many of us will recognise, in seemingly simple ways. My friend Taimi, shared this on her Facebook page earlier and I laughed out loud (I won’t tell you which particular image made me laugh the most).
Graphics like this can connect us to others – even unknown others – as they allow us to know we’re not the only ones putting the dishwasher on more often or rarely using the car.
We spent a few hours one night through the week listening to Wes Tank rapping Dr Seuss books over Dr Dre beats. Connections again – between words and sounds and beats and voice and cleverness and creativity and silliness and more. See if you can do it!
And then there’s connections to things I didn’t know I was missing. An email arrived just the other day, and I glanced through it disinterestedly until I saw the words ‘Slow TV’. My attention was immediately caught.
A car company filmed a driver driving through the NSW countryside for four hours. It almost made me cry!
There’s a world out there that I haven’t connected with for weeks … months. There are hills and trees and bumpy roads and grassy verges and sky … all that sky. There are horizons that go beyond the back fence, two metres from my back door. There are sheep and road signs and beautiful music to accompany me on this journey of what might be described as nothingness, but which I describe as bliss. Absolute bliss.
Connection to country. Who knew it was something I missed?
And, of course, as always, there’s connection to family. To Mum, and my sister Deb, and my daughters Rochelle (and on weekends her husband Michael) and Emma, and their kids, and Alison, and to my daughter-in-law Kaz (and even more grandkids), and my cousins Cassandra and Jenny (and often their kids), and sometimes to my nieces Sarah and Eliza and sometimes their kids too. We exercise together every day (those of us who can make it), then chat – or listen to all the kids saying hello to each other.
It’s a fabulous connection – four generations and multiple arms of family coming together as often as we can to keep physically and mentally healthy. As has been emphasised as we’ve exercised more and more, exercise is not about how you look, it’s about how you feel, and exercising with family feels good!
And on the back of that connection, we also connect creatively. We’ve completed our Images of Isolation project and are into our Images by the Dozen project. We’re all to take 12 images – representing the numbers 1 to 12 without actually having numbers as a feature of the image. It helps keep our brains busy, our eyes seeing differently and our connections strong.
These are just some of the connections I’ve made this week. What connections have you made?