“We’re all in this together”, they said, but not quite … It was the year which somehow didn’t happen. Or at least, like the diary entries for conferences and events, all was soon forgotten. The year of COVID-19.
I sought to adjust as a writer and an urban walker. Early, a short report for a newsletter going to India explored how we were ‘all in it together but not quite’ – supermarket toilet paper wars, the cappuccino curtain separating Victoria from the other side of the Murray and Tasmania’s independence declaration – “We’ve got a moat and we’ll use it’.
In poems, I told tales of suburban angst during a global pandemic, from neighbourhood walks and traky dakkies to Zoom life. The everyday microcosm, not the troops and victims in the trenches, the front lines. COVID-19 times impacted on so many of us as the global pandemic has been mirrored by a Paranoid Virus Epidemic. The result is Our Pandemic Zeitgeist.
In March, I asked if ‘the world has stopped … or has it?’ as my trips were put on hold and a few reports of death confirmed that we now had ‘A global pandemic’. ‘This matters’. By the end of April it seemed that ‘life goes on Ob la di Ob la da’, ‘nice walks on familiar streets … flowers to enjoy’ complemented at home by ‘binge screen watching … and snacking’.
By May there were positives. ‘You’re our hero Norm’ had become a new refrain as he guided us to a new approach – ‘Couch Be In It!’. ‘Bewdy Norm! Just keep lying back and enjoying it! You’ve done it for Australia’. Positively, it was ‘BOB’s your uncle’ for baby boomers, the Boring Old Buggers who already lived quiet lives and took precautions, including masks. ‘She’ll be right’ they agreed, or hoped. In contrast Millennials ‘just wanna have fun’, some seeing the virus as a ‘Boomer remover’/ ‘Don’t worry they’ll be gone soon’.
By June, pandemic life had become a time for rotting, from dirty tees and bare feet to grazing on toasted cheese. Escapes from cabin fever appeared – ‘To Zoom or not to Zoom?’ That was the question. Others followed. ‘Costume? Hair? Set and lighting – pot plants … paintings?’ Even discreet multi-tasking.
As winter descended anxiety worsened. Coronavirus fears infected psyches as well. An angstodemic was rampant from lives denied. Skins thinned, agitation grew. In July, in Melbourne, grey winter clouds darkened, as corrosive locked-down angst rusted our optimism, despite the brightening call of golden wattle.
In more elevated circles, the ‘Friendly Principals’ of the central expert committee proclaimed Rule Number One – ‘Don’t mention the ‘M’ word: Masks.’ ‘We know!’ they declared, loudly. Soon, however, the CDC, the WHO and Dr Fauci recognised masks centrality.
In spring, was angst giving way to hope? Everyday pleasures could be enjoyed – eating, gardening, even washing, and Zooming could be fun. Emerging sun, magnolia blooming and new roses. Spring is in the air!
Suddenly, the hard lockdown began to bite. It was like a vice, pressing on our chests. Families and friends reduced to faces on a screen. Too hard, too long, too everything. Anomie, lost and stumbling. Wanting something better. As documented in ‘WFH Working from Home’ and ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Covidovitch – Nyet’ sameness was hitting – same streets, same pasta, our own Siberia in a cell of fear and habit. Nyet to the virus, nyet to everything.
Brighter moments returned in late September. I was ‘sitting in the spring sun, on the steps of the garage, thriving like a daisy, my warm friend’ even as others, bored, asked ‘Aren’t we there yet?’
October soon, I paused, thinking of the year that had almost gone – ‘Lies my phone calendar told me’. No call of the MCG for a Grand Final. Nor, faraway, near the Roman ruins of Trier, Germany, a conference on Australian seascapes. Spring grass and sandy beach and breaking salt water, all vanished. Erased, abolished, forgotten – maybe next year.
Even darker, spectres all around us …the threats and the far too many deaths. Our Pandemic Zeitgeist, continuing, without a vaccine in sight. Fear, the orange Trump monster and climate change all threatened. Weltschmerz everywhere, a world wound.
I looked beyond that global melancholy. Dreaming from an earlier month, nearby ‘Tulips from Kensington’ called. An escape from the viral flowers of Covid-19. ‘Colours which free the mind and lift the spirit. I need them.’
Let’s hope there’s no 2021 sequel.
Stephen Alomes (RMIT University) drawing on his prose poetry diary, Our Pandemic Zeitgeist, Ginninderra Press, 2020