How the dark gets in

My family and I lost a dear friend this week.  We mourned her passing with prayers and candles.  She had been tall, straight and true, a constant companion, and this week my husband and I made the heart-breaking decision to cut her down.  Our magnificent white cedar tree is now but a pile of logs and a startlingly large mound of sawdust.

Though technically the tree was not a casualty of Covid-19, in a way she was collateral damage of the pandemic.  We live in Melbourne, where Lockdown 2.0—now under Stage 4—has forced us back into our homes in new and confronting ways.

Like friends who are lamenting how truly cold and mouldy their bathrooms are, or how desperately they need an extra multipurpose room for WFH/remote learning/Zoom pilates (the kitchen really is not an office/classroom/gym), spending so much time at home forced my husband and I to accept the fact that our dear tree was on a worrisome lean.  You didn’t need a protractor to measure the angle, just a 24/7 uninterrupted view of her solid trunk inching away from the fence line and towards the lounge room window.

We’ve lived here for 15 years, and for 15 years our neighbour, who has a pathological aversion to nature, has done an annual cull of the branches of the tree that overhang his property.  As anyone who has ever lived in close proximity to a white cedar knows, they make a shocking mess.  Not only do they drop leaves, but also a truckload of balls and stems. Our nature-hating neighbour has bricked and tiled every square inch of his garden, so the deciduous desiderata has clearly been the stuff of his nightmares.  Hence the early Sunday morning reveille of the leafblower, and the annual culling.  And the lean.

An arborist confirmed our grim diagnosis: the imbalance of branches had rendered the tree unstable.  There was every chance she would fall on our house by summer, when her thick, luxurious canopy provided maximum thermal protection from the western sun, as well as visual cover from the neighbour’s butt ugly bricks and mortar.

So, this week three men in high viz and masks chopped our friend limb from limb. Our fifteen-year-old daughter—who shouted Why? But seriously why? when we told her of our decision—refused to come out of her room all day.

Can you really mourn the loss of a single tree at a time when thousands of humans around the world, including frightening numbers here in our city—practically in our backyard (the now notorious St Basil’s Aged Care Home in Fawkner is just up the road)—are daily dying?

Is this the sort of plaintive lament that would have attracted the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems before the First and the Third and all the worlds in between were united in global grief?

While I realise my domestic eco-disaster is way up the pointy end of the Maslovian hierarchy of suffering I’m also pretty certain that such micro losses serve as triggers for the larger psychological harm and bereavement that we are collectively experiencing in Melbourne at the moment. When is a tree more than a tree?

When Melbourne returned to Stage Three restrictions in early July, thoughtful friends from other Victorian cities and interstate sent well wishes.  Soon, they asked what the different was between the first lockdown and now, which I started to refer to as L1 and L2.  The situation was certainly as absurd as any bananas running up and down stairs in their pyjamas.  Indeed, otherwise sensible folk could be seen climbing the walls in unbecoming attire at all hours of the day and night, often with a wine glass in hand.

Put simply, L1 was all about the baking; L2 is just cooked.

In L1 we looked deep into our pantries to see what we could transform into something delicious and time-consuming.  Or, the lazily inclined among us (ok, me), scrolled our Instagram feeds to see what Annabel Crabb was making, then convinced ourselves that we too could whip up a hazelnut dacquoise layered with crème fraiche and raspberry mousse if only we could be bothered. Women. Men. Sourdough. Ramen. A bit competitive. A bit performative. A lot of #ISO fun. Quarantivities, as my daughter dubbed the crafty ways we found to distract and amuse ourselves.

But in L2, nothing can be whipped, kneaded, folded or rolled into a satisfying shape.  Comfort food, we’ve discovered, is a short-term logic.  Forget the extra kilos round the tush. It’s the sheer hamster-wheel weight of circular reasoning that’s the problem now.  As one of my hard-working colleagues put it: ‘When the point of it all has become pointless, what is the point?’ This time, we’re looking beyond the kitchen shelves and into the pantries of our souls.

What emotions have been left on the shelf too long?

What psychological crutches are beyond their use-by dates?

Which spicy ingredients have we always been too afraid to use in our relationships, fearing the burn might feel exotic for a moment but might also prove ultimately unpalatable?

Will we ever get around to trying those recipes for success—for autonomy, authenticity, individuation—that sound improbably satisfying but, like Annabel’s dacquoise, will require a massive commitment of time and effort and could in the end fall flat?

These are the questions we now grapple with as we buckle in for the long haul of isolation.

The primary difference between L1 and L2 is that it feels like this present state of being might never end. That this is just how it is now. That we will never go out for dinner or drink in a pub or get on a plane or work from an office that isn’t the kitchen. That all that quotidian motion belongs to Before. That hopes and dreams for the future will remain just that; fantasies and shadow sides of a life that will be lived right here, like this, forever.

It’s like a living Vesuvius moment: we were all frozen in whatever material and psychological state we happened to be in on the first of July 2020. That stasis gives rise (at least in me) to feelings of both gratitude and longing. Gratitude for all I have. Longing for all I want and will never have. There is no After. Just a great yawning existential Now. And a realisation of just how much our present action is fuelled by the momentum of striving, of becoming, of consequence, where Lockdown 2.0 feels like a time without consequence. Whatever the cause, there will be no effect. There is both a weird liberation and a great gulping loss in that state of being. Suddenly, nothing matters, and everything matters.

Toilet paper shortages were a ruse for what our collective conscious knew from the very beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, when we were forced out of our hectic, harried lives and into our homes: if you look into a mirror long enough, the sheer idea of the self disappears. The curated self.  The storied self. Once the reflection cracks and crazes, the shadowy, foetid flip side can emerge.  It’s how the dark gets in.

In L1 we could distract ourselves with words like Flatten the Curve and Chief Medical Officer and Ruby Princess and At Least We’re Not New York.  There was a whole lexicon of shared experience and communal effort.  Sure, ISO was disruptive and costly, and fear of contracting the virus was real. If we were professionals with jobs that could be done on a laptop, we spent endless hours on Zoom, trying to gauge and assuage the impact on our industries.  We still thought we could control the outcome, if not yet the cause, of the world falling off a cliff.  Looking back to autumn and early winter 2020, I know the time was torrid, but it now also seems a season of initiation. Not a loss of innocence—for as our First Nations people rightly reminded us, Aboriginal Australia had already suffered catastrophic damage and enforced transformation—but a portent of a more critical transformation.

What this virus has now shown us is that we are all—every single bleeding one of us—no more than puny humans losing an evolutionary war against nature.  It’s why we hate tradescantia fluminensis—that creeping ground cover that smother and crowds out native vegetation—and give it such a culturally noxious nickname: Wandering Jew. No matter how many times you rip it up by the roots, there it is again.

What Nietzche might have called ‘the eternal recurrence of the same’.

Or Freud might label ‘the return of the repressed’.

Or what Kristeva might simply term ‘the abject’, a force which does not respect borders, systems, order, rules.

Philosophers and psychoanalysts know what we’ve been too frightened to say aloud.  Why we wait on Daniel Andrews’ daily press conferences with the ardour of disciples. Why we look for scapegoats and villains and soft targets to blame, vilify. New Zealand notwithstanding, this shit ain’t going away.

I am not a philosopher or a psychoanalyst.  I am an historian, which means I know quite a lot about roots, if not branches.

I know that the stories we tell about ourselves matter.  And that the stories that nations tell about themselves rarely reflect the truth of what actually happened in the past. Australia trumpets itself as an egalitarian nation, strewn with level playing fields where Jack can be as good as his master.  Stare too long into that mirror, and not even Scotty from Marketing will have enough superglue to patch up the shattered image.   This is why a truth-telling process—the act of our nation digging up the layers of ideological and mythological sediment it has laid down to bury its racialised roots—is so integral to the reparation movement that is the Uluru Statement and its promise of catharsis. ‘Through confession I throw myself into the arms of humanity again,’ said Carl Jung of the cathartic method of healing, ‘freed at last from the burden of moral exile … not merely the intellectual recognition of the facts with the head, but their confirmation by the heart and the actual release of suppressed emotion.’

We can run, but we can’t hide.  And now, in Stage 4 of Lockdown 2.0, we can’t even run.  We can barely leave our front gates.  The repressed knows where to find us.

First stop: our aged care facilities.  Deep-rooted structural inequality is coming back to bite us by killing our old people in their ‘homes’.  I have wondered during this ‘second wave’, or ‘Victorian wave’ (thanks for that Scotty), as one aged care facility after another topples under the domino effect of systemic casual, low paid labour, what would have happened if Covid-19 had preyed on our babies, not our grandparents.

How much more collective trauma would ensue if the virus was killing our first born?  How much louder might the public outcry be?  Take a walk around any rural cemetery (those of you who can still walk further than 5 kms from your home in your one hour of permitted exercise) and witness the rates of 19th century infant mortality, when infectious diseases wiped out whole families’ and communities’ futures.  And don’t think that Victorian-era parents grieved their dead babies any less because they had large families back in the day. Before vaccines there was Providence.  In place of science, there was faith.  But there were still tears.  Oceans of tears. Same shit, different solace.

Lockdown 2.0 has exposed the flip side of a lucky country.  If you are caught in an abusive relationship, an exploitative job, insecure accommodation or any other world of pain, this is the situation you are going to find yourself in day after shameless day.  It might get worse but it sure as hell isn’t getting better any time soon.  If, like me, your pain is more prosaic, melancholic, intuitive rather than structural or situational, you will be doing a lot of guilt-ridden blessing counting right now.

Spare a thought for those who have been kept in perpetual lockdown, not through their own unlawful actions or through natural disaster but through oppressive political regimes, including our own here in Australia, where we have locked blameless, harmless people in mandatory offshore detention, and mere children in youth ‘justice’ centres, causing untold human suffering.

Think of all those in refugee camps around the world who left their homes, no doubt at the last minute, when no alternative future could be imagined, so that they could continue to throw out their branches, to spread and grow and provide cover for their children.

Groundhog Day only works as a romantic comedy on the ‘there but for the grace’ principle of human psychodynamics. We root for the poor bugger to escape his cyclical, infinite torture and get the girl because we want to believe in human agency, that we can determine our destiny, control our environments, change the course of history. The alternative makes Bill Murray’s plight a horror show.

It’s what we all fear, isn’t it? Not death itself but living a life that resembles death. Immutable, unchanging, with no future possibility of growth or transcendence

That the multitudes we all contain will never be realised. That we will no longer (or never) be truly seen, believed. That we will cry out in the night—in our pain or our ecstasy—and no one will be able to hear us.

That without some sort of a marker, a beacon, a crypt, the grass will grow over our subterranean selves and before long, we will have disappeared without a trace.

This is what we fight against in the strivings of our daily lives, in the performance of selves that require an audience larger than our children or our parents or our partners or our cats.

And even for those of us who enjoy the isolation, who embrace the solitude, who are lucky enough to have jobs that can be done remotely and homes that we can afford to heat and fill with food and music or Netflix or novels, that even while we check our privilege knowing that there are so many of us vastly worse off, in Lockdown 2.0 a part of ourselves has thrown in the towel, surrendered to the inevitability that all of that striving, all of that reaching for the sky, all of that stretching our limbs and digging down our roots will have been for nothing.

That nature, in the form of this microscopic virus, has cut us down.

From where I sit, staring at the gaping wound where my white cedar used to be, I have some unsolicited advice to offer the rest of smug/terrified Australia: get your house in order.

Vesuvius might blow for you yet.  Ask yourself, on a personal and political level, what will you want your frozen moment to look like?  Can you bear to gaze into the unforgiving mirror?  Can you make your current freedoms count?

And to my fellow Victorians, it is my sincere hope that you can love the ones you’re with.

Originally published in Meanjin on August 7 2020.