Loneliness, Boredom, No Normal

1.

My kid comes up to me, ‘Why do we do this, why do we do this every day?’, she asks. She knows why, but still she asks. As of mid-May, less than 100 people have died in Australia from coronavirus, and the kids are locked up at home learning from screens and parents, who like parents everywhere, are too distracted to give them a proper education. I look her in the eyes, ‘Because, kitten, we need to do our bit to stop the spread.’ Her little face is again reassured that there’s a reason for this new way of schooling, for this new way of life.

         In southern Australia we’re two times bruised by a dislocated ecology. And I’m only speaking of the past six months. In summer many of us suffered forced evictions, not just from our homes but from any viable future in this nation. Bushfires tore through every state of the country, killing one billion native animals, and making so many question what home will become in the Anthropocene. I’m wondering, when dwelling alienation is the future in climate extremes, what will we come to know as our place?

         This kid who queries the monotony of the everyday-Google-Classroom-routine, is the same kid who folded the woollen blankets into the evacuation box a few months earlier, placing them carefully on top of passports, torches, cords for recharging, and birth certificates. These are the ritual preparations we do early each summer so that we’re ready to bolt if the season’s bushfires lick too close, burn too hard. And now, we’re locked down at the end of the world, with winter closing in, and another atmosphere to be afraid of. Not bushfire smoke this time, but contagion.

         Within a short half-year, we’ve become contortionists of both eviction and house arrest. In our mastering of these two states, we’re now experts in loneliness. And this, curiously, is a sort of redefined species loneliness which has us both isolated from each other and from the non-human world we’ve devastated. We’re stranded, suspended, without the insidious new normal those in other countries can rightly speak of. They can seek a certain solace in this concept, a certain shadowed optimism, because the potential for something new also signals the potential for change to recur, and perhaps in a more favourable manner next time. A better, new normal might just be on the far horizon in these other places.

         There’s no normal in Australia, though, when there’s no future.

Our experience of bushfires first, and then pandemic, has recast loneliness in this brief historical moment. I think of it now as the feeling of one-third loss-of-contact combined with two-thirds no-future-in-place. It’s a melancholic infusion, which if left too long, concocts an unhealable sadness. Perhaps this is melodramatic for some, but for us on the frontlines of climate collapse, it sweats into our dreams and decisions, making living on dirt roads in the bush unbearable.

         Edward Said wrote in Reflections on Exile, ‘the pathos of exile is in the loss of contact with the solidarity and satisfaction of earth: homecoming is out of the question.’ Like most people worldwide, we’ve had weeks of contactless encounters, and yet we have no guarantee of sheltering in place when the summer returns. It’ll be hotter and drier and harder, pushing us away. This double volley of climate change and coronavirus, of experiencing being forced from home and then being locked down, is an absurd condition to explain to children, who ask what all this means even though their short lives have been so turbulent that I’m often surprised they’ve even had a chance to get used to the old ways.

         I realise, though, asking doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not prepared to accept. And over the months, as more calamity occurs, I begin to understand that my kids respond to these crises with a degree of indifference, as though ecological despoliations and infectious pathogens are now the natural order of the day. Something to be feared for sure, but something also inevitable. They know and accept the Anthropocene, even before they’re schooled to rationalise the dawning of a new epoch.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, controversial and much dismissed, yet worthy of an ear, writes in his recent book Pandemic!, ‘One of the lasting symbols of the epidemic is passengers trapped in quarantine on large cruise ships.’ This image overlaps with another one, from our unforgettable summer. Navy vessels called in to evacuate thousands of stranded people from the coast on New Year’s Day, pushed to the shoreline by voracious flames, an almighty conflagration.

         The next day, with published images in the newspaper of small children in boats seeking refuge under the blackened daylight sky, my kid asked me what was happening. I told her about the help that arrived shortly after those photographs were taken, reassuring her that the people and their pets were rescued. She looked at me, ‘It’s just like the Ark then,’ she responded, pausing before continuing, ‘but not for all the creatures that need to be saved, just for the humans, cats and dogs.’ She seemed satisfied with this answer, and I didn’t question it. But I thought quietly, yes, these are what evacuations in the Anthropocene look like, evacuations for the minutest of privileged species, revealing the vastest of failures.

         When I ask my kids how they’re coping with the remote learning, they tell me they miss their mates but they’re happy that I’m cooking more. I ask them if they’re lonely. They’re surprised to be questioned about this, as though it were a topic reserved for adult conversation. Each of them responds with a dull, ‘No, mum’. I’m not sure if children at their age truly know what loneliness is, just what boredom is, but perhaps there is conflation between the two. These are very different emotions for adults, I think.

         I realise, locked down on a bush block with three children, that I envy their delicate not-knowing about our not-knowing the future. And I think every parent, of every generation, must have thought this. But something about the portents that this year concedes makes me think that we are in a position, quite unlike any before, to protect, fiercely, our young ones. As Emily Dickinson wrote, ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant.’ I’d always rather my children bored than lonely.


2.

I get a load of wood delivered, and the man talks to me about the dunnarts that hide in the woodpile, in the hollows of the just cut logs, and the lengths he goes to to keep his dog away from them. We move onto a discussion about ringtail possums and their claws, and then onto phascogales and their sneaky moves in the night-time that distract him when he’s loading up for the next day’s delivery. I’m listening to him talk but I’m thinking about his lips which are too soft to be in the weather all day, and seem almost too explicit to be out in the open like this, in front of a stranger. But these might be some of the off-topic, neurotic things I’m noticing now that I haven’t seen many people for weeks, a product of my restless, contactless mind. It’s just his mouth, I have to remind myself.

         When I expect the conversation to wind up he looks at me and asks if I’ll return to work in the city when all the restrictions are eventually lifted. I tell him I’m not sure. ‘I’m not fussed about missing the commute, and the only deficient thing about my working-from-home routine is my lack of motivation. Oh, and the children not being at school,’ I add. We both laugh. And then he asks me if I get lonely.

         I muffle a sort of knowing, affirmative chuckle, and without properly responding, I ask him if he gets bored chopping wood all day, loading it, carting it around.

         ‘Nah,’ he says. I expect a more florid answer, something akin to his wordy descriptions of the small marsupials he encounters, the ones he’s chased out of their habitat when he’s cut down the wood that I burn all winter to stay warm. We both carry the guilt but don’t mention it.

         ‘We get bored,’ my son interrupts, and the two of them go off in another direction of chatter about the things we can do that we often take for granted and forget to do. The woodcutter, with his calloused hands and flannel shirt, teases the child gently, implying, as all adults do, that they themselves must be boring to get bored on a bush block with acres to roam and the yellow box to climb.

         My oldest daughter interrupts them by offering the man a just-baked slice of banana bread she’s wrapped in baking paper, held together by an elastic band. It’s still warm, and the offering makes for such an Arcadian scene that it almost seems cliché in the moment. He’s awkward at first in receiving it, although I’m not sure if this is about social distancing and fears of contamination. It could be because he’d rather a cold beer, or the envelope of cash which I quickly hand over, remembering.

         ‘This will get me home alright,’ he says, taking the envelope in one hand but speaking to the baking paper parcel in the other.

         ‘I hope you’ve left all those dunnarts here,’ the youngest says, climbing over the woodpile.

         ‘They’ll be in there, I’m sure,’ he responds. ‘And they’ll be needing an evacuation plan.’

         ‘They’ll be safe in there until we burn it,’ the kid responds enthusiastically. ‘This’ll be their home.’ And here again she accepts the inevitable; no possibility of sheltering in place.

         The woodcutter drives home and I leave the kids outside to fossick through the hollow logs while I cook dinner and think about lips and loneliness and boredom, and what the future might mean for our inevitable evictions that we’ll endure with reduced physical contact; a defined loneliness.

         When my son comes in, washing his hands at the sink, he asks, ‘Mum, what do adults get lonely for?’

         Tell all the truth but tell it slant, I think, before responding with a censored homily about life as I ladle soup into bowls.

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE