Get fit, brush up on French, update the kids’ scrapbooks, publish my play, experiment with other forms of writing, be grateful.
That was the list I wrote after the shock of the first lockdown settled, somewhere around April 2020. It was part ‘When life gives you lemons’ and part ‘If I stay busy I won’t have time to think about seismic changes in the world.’
Mental health has very much been on my mind during Canberra’s lockdowns – thinking about it, researching it, writing about it, talking to people about it. When I started writing my play, Fragments over three years ago, mental health wasn’t part of the public discourse. That’s changed, fuelled by the escalating rates of anxiety and depression that have accompanied the pandemic. People are speaking more openly about mental health issues, but it’s not always with understanding. There’s a real danger that mental health will soon turn into a badge of honour, an unspoken competition between rivals in the survivor stakes (What’s she on about? I’ve been to hell and back and you don’t hear me whinging!) The true survivors are young people (particularly Year 12s). Their entire world – education, social networks, rites of passage, sport, clubs, community life – has been turned upside down, inside out then back again yet they have endured and overcome. Perhaps it’s because young people, considered to be ‘works in progress’ in many ways, are arguably more resilient and less likely to fear change than other age groups.
But some of us ‘oldies’ have also learned the art of adaptation. Like many people, I learned that I can adjust and acclimatise to change – even sudden, unimaginable change – though it takes time. I learned there is no end to learning. In fact, I can’t recall a day that the pandemic didn’t force me to stretch my brain – virtual presentations, new software, video editing, self-publishing, writing for new art forms and markets, cleaning and cooking hacks, sound recording, social media tips, home repairs, to name just a few. And that’s good news because keeping the brain active and agile has been shown to slow down aging. If stepping outside of one’s comfort zone has therapeutic benefits, I figure 2020-21 has easily added ten years to my life.
For the record, I didn’t get physically fit during lockdown but I did train in our makeshift gym when the mood struck, which was more often than I expected. I worked on my mental fitness too, reconnecting with old friends, enjoying long walks, painting again, volunteering, all of which broke up an interminable workload. I did brush up on French, thanks to an app, a treasure trove of old French books, and talking to myself and my imaginary friend en français. Fragments was published in paperback, released worldwide on 1 October. I dabbled in poetry, microfiction and essays, pleasantly surprised when several were picked up for publication. I learned gratitude. No matter how much COVID-19 has done my head in, especially in the early days of the pandemic, I’m well aware that many people continue to grapple with far greater challenges. An emphatic No for updating scrapbooks. (Confession: the last entries were in primary years for two of the kids, infancy for one, despite all of them now being in their twenties.)
With restrictions due to ease in a few days, I can’t help but ponder my re-entry to the world, and whether I’ve lost the skills needed for post-lockdown life. Take social skills, for instance. Chatting on Zoom doesn’t cut it for me. I’m a gesticulator and the camera can’t capture my erratic (but oh so meaningful, I’d like to think) hand movements. There’s no touching, whether a nudge, lean-in, knee under the table or quick pat of the hand. In other words, there’s no nuance to online conversation. There’s not even much eye contact as I’ve yet to master the art of looking into the camera rather all the action on screen.
My brain hurts from all the pandemic-induced thinking and learning these past few years. But it’s a good kind of hurt. COVID-19 has shown so many of us that we can tackle the unknown, navigate uncertainty and even pick up a few skills along the way.
It’s just those damn social skills that I’m worried about.