“How’re you going?”
It’s our standard greeting, and we don’t really expect a considered reply.
Ask someone in Sydney today, though, and you’ll get a more considered, honest and invariably longer answer about the mental, emotional and physical travails of what is becoming a difficult and protracted Covid lockdown. Melbourne people, now going through their fifth hard lockdown, are too familiar with such Covid emotional candour, certainly among one another if not with Sydneysiders who, until now, have escaped similar hardship.
And it’s here I’d like to concede in this epoch of profound self-realisation: until now I have been too disengaged from the past year’s lockdown pain of my many friends and family in Melbourne, a city I love and still regard as one of my homes. I didn’t understand. I didn’t check in often enough.
I didn’t ask the next important question: “But how are you – really?”
The world – which is to say the internet – is exploding with self-help advice right now. Everyone shares their ways of coping. Or not. The best advice I’ve taken recently is that anxiety is about a future you mostly can’t determine – so live in the present. While “living in the now” might sound like cliched psychobabble, just dealing with the present, day by day, would seem to have a certain amount to recommend it right now.
Those of us fortunate enough to be able to work still do so. Meanwhile, we claw out routine from the ordinary and the mundane. That which was tediously prosaic and burdensome has found new meaning – and potential danger. Not least, the daily supermarket adventure, which we now competitively vie for around here (only one person per household may shop) and which I find myself dressing up for (relatively speaking), into belted jeans, collared shirt and boots and out of trackies, hoodie and thick socks.
All the while, circadian rhythm aligns with the 11am press conference that choreographs ever more grim numbers with doe-eyed sympathy, medical science and law enforcement. At 10 minutes to 11, it seems impossible to live in the now.
So, afterwards, disconnect. Turn it off. Take the headphones out. Breathe. See. Smell. Feel.
The silence of shutdown Sydney can be consuming, frightening and enlightening.
There are these birds just before sun-up I’ve never noticed before. Not the ostentatious cawing currawongs and gulls or the laughing kookaburras, who can always be heard above the city din. Now that the nearby arterial and the flightpath above are so sparsely in use, we hear thousands of previously unnoticed voices tinkling with the anticipation of another dawn, their sound softer than a summer shower on the metal roof.
This Sydney winter has come with bitter winds belting in from the Pacific and across the harbour. On three consecutive mornings recently the harbour was, uncharacteristically, enveloped by dense fogs, talisman for the mood that was swallowing the place.
I got among it. Wanted to sense it.
I’ve never noticed the scent of a Sydney Harbour fog. But it’s brine and earth. Its sound? The horn of a lonely ferry.
Steinbeck wrote in Cannery Row: “And everywhere people asked him why he was walking through the country. Because he loved true things, he tried to explain. He said he was nervous and besides he wanted to see the country, smell the ground and look at grass and birds and trees, to savor the country, and there was no other way to do it save on foot.”
He was on to something. The suburban lockdown dusk walk entices the senses in ways it hadn’t before. Homes still usually dark at this time are alive with light and sound. Fairy lights dance in trees. Candles flicker in windows. Televisions glow.
Laughter. Argument. Sometimes a scream or cry.
Last week about 5.10pm the same apartment, always in darkness, pulsed to the Stones’ Gimme Shelter. An oldie. But prescient for these times. It unsettles and triggers a shiver. Whatever gets you through.
So keep walking to the clanking pots and pans of early dinners. And those comforting aromas on the wind. Curry. Osso bucco maybe. Moroccan spice. Roast lamb.
It’s diverting while you’re in it. But afterwards there’s always the weight of now. And of what’s to come.