Today is a beautiful spring day. Light shimmers on the bark of the gum tree opposite our apartment block and scatters over the small reserve. I can hear laughter and verbal sparring coming from one of the neighbours’ houses. It must be a football grand final day. After so much silence, the raucous voices coming from their house warm my heart. Inside our house, my headphoned, eight-year-old son is laughing while watching a YouTube video on my computer. He developed this habit during the last few years of Covid-19—a time that is inching towards the edges of my consciousness.
I live in Sydney, which was hit hard in Australia with infections and deaths. More than three years have passed since the first case in Australia, when an infected man from Wuhan flew into Melbourne on January 25, 2020. We have experienced four waves already, and although Covid no longer makes headlines, we know that thousands of people are still getting infected. Hospitals continue to be overwhelmed. Some people are dying from the virus, and others are experiencing long COVID and depression.
Despite this, many of us have moved on with our lives, acting as if the virus doesn’t exist. Domestic and international borders have reopened. Lockdowns and curfews are a thing of the past. Isolation days have shifted from fourteen days to five. Mask-wearing is no longer mandated, and QR codes at check-ins have disappeared. We have gone back to the office, seeing friends and family in person and going on holidays.
The kookaburra that sits on our balcony’s railing every morning and evening is a reminder of the time of our isolation. His regular presence was a comfort to our household. We continue to follow his trajectory from palm tree to balcony to lamppost to grass before swooping on his prey. Even for him time has passed, and there are two of them now. He has found a mate.
I consider myself a generally positive and hopeful person. More than a decade ago, when I turned forty-one and was at the tail end of a failed marriage, I wanted to have the word ‘hope’ tattooed on my forearm. I descended into the search for greater aestheticism—would hope look better in Japanese script or Hindi? However, my quest for the perfect tattoo became meaningless as I had no roots in either language. I gave up on the idea.
Still, I continue searching for hope. Not the hope that everything will turn out well or that no matter how things turn out, I will be accepting. I search for the hope that whatever happens, I can find some positive meaning in it. Since having my own child, it seems particularly important to hold this attitude, so I can provide him with the same environment of hope and meaning my parents nurtured for me and my siblings. At eighty-plus years, they remain hopeful and healthy-minded people despite having experienced the loss and dislocation of two migrations, from India to Fiji, and Fiji to Australia.
Becoming a parent has helped me to understand the overprotectiveness of my parents. Now I realise that raising a child is tentacled with worry. Will they fall off a tree? Will they bump their head on the pavement? Will they electrocute themselves? Will they be rejected by others? However, I have succeeded in calming my turbulent maternal soul with as much reason and good judgment as I can muster.
Also, there are so many bigger things to worry about: environmental and humanitarian crises of poverty, disease, exploitation, war, refugees…I’m not brave enough to speak to any of this, but I can say something about the pandemic and how I managed my mental health during the worst times.
I have reflected repeatedly on why this was a difficult period for me, and I imagine my experiences were not so different from others’. I worried that my unvaccinated child—who, along with other children, couldn’t be vaccinated for more than a year—would catch Covid. I worried for my elderly parents, being unable to see my family who live three hours away in Canberra for half a year because both cities were barricaded by borders. I worried for myself; people over fifty were reported to be at a higher risk of getting seriously ill. I was fearful that my partner wouldn’t be able to go to Poland to see his mother if there was an emergency because the international borders had closed. I was concerned for the sanity and health of my best friend’s ninety-year-old mother who was going in and out of lockdown in the old people’s home. I felt sorrow for the world in which everyone was mentally and physically grappling with this plague.
More than six million people worldwide have died from Covid-19. Perhaps it was this reality that seeped into my consciousness and drove me to write poetry. Looking back, this was a good move—a sustaining act.
The physical constraints of lockdown, mask wearing and keeping one’s body to oneself forced our emotions underground. The crushing virus had hurtled towards the earth like an asteroid, kicking us out of our safe orbits. We switched to emergency power, functioning solely on getting through this crisis—working too much or too little, overeating, sleeping or often not, home-schooling, isolating, being vaccinated …
During the height of the pandemic, members of my family got the virus. Some recovered fairly quickly. Some got very sick, and one nearly died. I know other people have suffered in other ways. They lost their parents to Covid or their children to suicide. They lost their livelihoods, mental health and…hope. Writing poetry under such painful circumstances may not have been a viable outlet for their pain or even a thought for them in the face of such tragedies.
However, for me, poetry was the perfect vehicle to turn to in the face of this disaster because it is subliminal. It is also sublime! I love poetry because, unlike prose, it uses fewer words to make its point. Like a floating iceberg, it is visible, hidden, accessible and secretive. Writing poetry allowed me to express how I felt during the 107 days of lockdown and the months before and after this period. It was during the time of the severest restrictions, when we were only permitted to leave the house to shop for food, exercise or to seek medical attention and within a radius of five kilometres, that I wrote the most poetry. After going for a walk to the local park or along the promenade where the beach was cordoned off, I would come home and write a poem.
Being creative during the pandemic gave me the courage to carry on in a meaningful way. In between home-schooling, working from home and worrying about my family, I could still write poetry. I wrote about how the virus had changed our daily lives, how it felt to be unable to be with family members who were not part of your household. How it felt to stop one’s child from touching their friends. How it felt to forget your own face because you were wearing a mask all the time. My poems emerged from my walks in the two hours a day when you could leave the house. They were also born from my sense of a pervasive feeling of sadness and loneliness among people. Something I try to convey in ‘Shooting Star’:
An ambulance streaks past
Like a shooting star
Carrying in its rocky cradle
A heart patient
The diagnosis is
Burnt up from loneliness
Before I had even thought to have my poems published, I shared them via text messages and email and in different WhatsApp groups with family members, friends, close colleagues, my school mother’s group, my relatives in Delhi. Messages flew across Sydney, from city to city (Sydney to Canberra) and from country to country (Australia to India/Fiji/Poland). I now see these informal communities as playing a significant role in communicating and healing for all of us in those days of isolation. While we were able to talk more openly about our parents’ health, whinge about our kids becoming iPad addicts and our partners never leaving the house, we struggled to talk about the sorrow we felt for our children who were becoming more fearful, isolated and sadder as the days crept on. When one of them paused at a particular image or line, having experienced a moment of recognition (that’s how it felt trying to home-school their child), this was an indication to me that the poem had spoken to them. Some of the poems seem to have provided an avenue for expressing the uneasy feelings that were within us but which we weren’t allowing ourselves to express. Other poems gave a sense of relief through laughter, such as ‘Takeaway Pie and Tomato Sauce’:
A pie with tomato sauce please
proved hard to resist.
I stopped on empty sidewalk
gave in to temptation
hot chicken-mushroom pie
let my mask dangle off cowardly chin
Seconds later, a person passed by
so near wearing naked mouth,
it seemed he too was eating my pie.
I returned home finally
the pie wholly consumed
gave me a look of innocence
or so I thought.
My mask had betrayed me so easily
Out damn spot!
Treacherous tomato sauce.
My poems were a vehicle of connection between people. There were times however when nothing gave relief; words failed. When conversations flatlined and the Indian family WhatsApp group went dead, it was an ominous sign that the situation in India with the virus had escalated. News streaming into Australia showed images of burning pyres in the streets of Delhi, images exceeding our worst imagining.
As India’s second wave passed, the ping of the WhatsApp group, like a heartbeat, revived. I used to think a family WhatsApp group was a waste of time—the endless photos, videos and inane conversations. But during the toughest periods of isolation and worry, I became grateful for it. I realised that while we couldn’t do much to help each other, we could let relatives know we were thinking of them in dire moments, such as when my aunt had to attach an oxygen tank to my uncle and my cousins tried desperately to secure a place for him in an engulfed hospital system.
While the act of writing calmed me, I believe it was also the sharing of the words that made a difference to my family and friends. Instead of keeping to ourselves, the daily exchanges—what we read, saw, made, were angry about, grateful for—helped us get through this time of sorrow. I had written poems that were intended to capture our shared helplessness and resilience through rhythm, resonating images and gentle irony.
During the height of the pandemic, I wrote persistently, and after two years, I had a collection of poems. Surprisingly, they are positive poems despite having been written when I didn’t feel optimistic. Like many others, I felt trapped, anxious and unhappy.
But that’s the beauty of words; they give glimpses into the subconscious. Deep down I must have known that all the things I loved were still there: my family, my child, my partner. Even my uncle, whose case had been touch-and-go, was still alive. And the spaces; the light that flooded our small apartment first thing in the morning, the luminescent gum tree in the reserve by our house, the waves in the ocean of our beloved Bay were where they had always been.
The virus disrupted our lives in various ways, and we lost structure in the real world. We stopped leaving the house to go to the workplace, sending our children to school, meeting friends at restaurants. At some point, the state government even abandoned the 11am news conference—a daily event we had become accustomed to and which broke the tedious Covid day—where the grotesque statistics of the last twenty-four hours were revealed. Our leader, the premier of NSW, left us floundering in the desert with a set of commandments and broken tablets.
Yet, we reassembled our realities through our creativity. We knitted scarves, planted herbs, cooked different recipes, tried out new exercise regimes, and some of us wrote poems. There is poem after poem, by young and old, that have been generously shared on the internet about this time. Even better still, since we have been able to meet in person, poetry on this topic has also been performed at an open mic or slam event.
Poetry is one pathway to getting order back into our lives. For me, crafting my poems gave me meaning, a purpose and hope that I could go to my desk, turn on my computer and break up a line, add a comma, or replace a word when the world stood still because of Covid.
Maybe poetry is indulgent. Art in the face of life’s challenges can be perceived as such, but it has helped me to experience the healing power of creativity. My collection, Return to What Remains, attempts to give meaning to a time of human separation.
As my poet friend Willo Drummond said on reading my collection, ‘Poetry not only has an aesthetic function but also a social and healing one. It can be an embodiment of what may have been the most significant gift of “the great pause”—kindness through connection.’
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