Stage four feels like a six-week jail term. I had travelled reasonably well, global pandemic and all, in stage three. I had stayed somewhat sane and healthy and productive. My home office was pleasant during the day. It served its purpose well. Work was stressful and hectic, but I was grateful to be engaged in meaningful work.
I maintained my mental health through long music-filled walks by the bay. Phone calls with close friends. Try not to get agitated, just be kind. Mandatory face masks wore unexpected benefits – they kept your face warm from the winter chill. Three week self compassion meditation journeys. The extended solitude was almost too much. But it held short of tipping me over the edge. Stage four lockdown changed all that.
One hour per day. One walk. Deep breath in, breathe out. This meant 23 hours inside my four walls, every day. Twenty-two if I needed to go to the supermarket. That’s a lot of time inside. In solitude. The walls are closing in, despite the fresh orange tulips on my coffee table. They chopped down the bright yellow wattle branches outside my kitchen window the day before businesses shut.
When I purchased this apartment in 2014, with no outdoor area other than an ugly concrete carpark, I didn’t plan on staying home. For the past six years, if I wasn’t at the office, I was probably outside. Somewhere fun and cool and happy. I was out for dinner, or at the beach, or shopping, or just out. Eating pastries, drinking coffee. I was overseas or interstate or out of town. I was only home if I was getting ready to go out again. And then COVID arrived and changed everything.
Like others, I’ve ricocheted between addict and mystic since the world went into lockdown in March. Five months on now… and still counting. One week, it’s early morning walks, deep meditation and oven roasted vegetables. The next day, it’s high voltage rants, smoking darts on the doorstep, and staring at old photos longing for your old life. The one where you were thin and free and looked 10 years younger. Your son lived in the same house as you. Not half a world away in a country gone mad. This pandemic has aged you. Your next appointment at the hairdresser isn’t until October. That was the next available. You wonder how grey you will be by then.
The further away pre-pandemic life gets, the more unreal it feels. Did we really used to meet a friend for dinner in the city whenever we wanted? Time stands still, moving excruciatingly slower and slower, until it blurs together into a cloud of red and yellow and grey. To become one very, very, long day. Like a car crash in slow motion and you’re in the passenger seat. For now, in this moment, you are safe. But maybe not tomorrow. The collective grief is enormous. For our beautiful city, for beautiful lives that no longer exist. Five million people together and alone in our struggle.
I probably sound spoilt complaining about my lack of freedom. I know I’ve enjoyed a lot of it. I’m a single woman and an empty nester. Is there anyone more free? I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a full-time job, a roof over my head, food in my belly. I’m healthy and well. I’ve tested negative. I’m alive and so are my dearest ones. And I have enjoyed a life with freedom. Even if it never comes back. Which, of course, it will at some point. This too will pass.
The rest of the world has moved on from baking sourdough to various stages of normality. In some countries and states, back to what seems like pre-COVID life. The virus is forgotten, or ignored, but Melbourne is an inconvenient daily reminder. We have returned to our hardest lockdown yet until mid-September. Maybe longer. Our city is shut for business. And closed for extended walks. We move in five kilometre zones, but not after the 8pm curfew. The fines are huge. We are in a state of disaster. It feels like that.
We search for an escape route, but all tickets out of Victoria are sold out. We can only leave now when it is over. I am grieving our city. The evening comedy shows. Drinks after work. Dressing up. Walks along the Yarra. Exploring. My former life of absolute freedom.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been scared of being in jail. It’s probably partly why I’m so law abiding and compliant. With freedom comes responsibility, I would tell Rishi. But maybe, deep down, I knew this day would come. My heart said travel, travel, travel. Don’t miss an opportunity. Even in our three weeks of brief respite in June, I managed to get away to Daylesford with my best friend. Get out of here while you can, my gut demanded.
I’m not in jail now. It just feels like it. My perception is warped from too much silence and solitude. Loneliness piled on top of lonely. Some people seem to be okay in stage four. Happy, even. How is that possible? I don’t know how to find my way back or forward to a peaceful place. The mystic who accepts life on life’s terms. The monk who knows this too will change at some point. Maybe I just can’t see the end anymore. When does it end? What do we return to?
So I write because then it can end. I can write the ending. With a full stop. A dash of hope. And enjoy a fleeting moment of freedom.