Tag Archives: Covid-19

A cautionary tale

There hadn’t been any community transmission of Covid-19 in New South Wales for a number of days. The Premier was warning against complacency. In our part of the inner west there were still plenty of masks in evidence, and at the supermarket we politely gave each other wide berths. But the virus is still out there. Here’s a timeline of what happened next in my family (no trigger warning needed):

Sunday 4 October: The Emerging Artist and I had yum cha with four other people. Two people turned up in masks. We all used the hand sanitiser on arrival. When we were seated, in a small private room because that’s what was available, the person in our group who is statistically most likely to have serious illness if she’s infected asked for sanitiser and wiped down the table and her chair. There was some mild eye-rolling. We had a pleasant lunch.

Monday 5 October: With a great sense of liberation and celebration, the Emerging Artist and I had dinner at friends’ house. We ate roast chicken, just four of us, and spent a very pleasant evening catching up on each other’s lives, and laughing a lot.

Tuesday 6 October: One of the people from Sunday’s yum cha – call him Alfredo – spent a couple of hours at his work in close contact with a student, helping her to use some complex equipment. He gave her his mobile number so she could phone for help the next day when she was to use the equipment. Unknown to him (and possibly her), the student’s mother was being tested for Covid while they were meeting.

Wednesday 6 October: The student learned in the morning that her mother had tested positive. She got tested and that night at nine o’clock got word that she too was positive. She immediately phoned Alfredo to let him know. He was the only person she had had contact with at his workplace.

Thursday 7 October: Alfredo drew up a list of everyone he had spent time with at work on Tuesday and since, and told them the story. They got themselves tested and did the self-isolation thing. He also called us early in the morning to let us know.

The Emerging Artist and I were tested late morning – no waiting, friendly people doing the job, and a horrible sensation in the nose. We were grandparenting that day, and as Alfredo had visited our granddaughter and her family on Sunday before the yum cha, we had her tested too – and her parents did it separately. We assumed that Alfredo’s exposure happened after we’d seen him, but no one was absolutely sure who was infected when. All the others from yum cha were also tested, and went into isolation pending results.

On Thursday night, the contact tracers phoned to tell Alfredo that he was regarded as a ‘close contact’, and that he should be tested. He told them he was ahead of them. They said that, as a close contact, even if his test came back negative he was to self-isolate for another ten days and then be tested again. That is to say, it took the contact tracers well over 24 hours to contact him, which I would have thought was time for him to do plenty of spreading if he was infected. They didn’t ever contact us.

Friday 8 October: A little after 6 in the morning, the Emerging Artist and I received text messages saying no trace of Covid was found in our samples or our granddaughter’s. Alfredo, the granddaughter’s parents, and the other Yum Cha-ers got text messages on Friday evening saying they too were negative. Alfredo is still in strict isolation, but the rest of us are back to Sydney-Covid-normal.

It’s sobering to realise that if the timing of those events had been just a little different, this could have been a story to make us roll our eyes in a whole other direction.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Night

The NSWPLA night used to be a grand affair. Long before my time there was a bread-roll throwing affair when Morris West droned on too long in his acceptance speech. I got to be on the free list one year, then coughed up good money for a number of years after that, and one year I got to be the plus one of my shortlisted niece. It became less fun when it changed from being a full-blown dinner to a drinks and powerpoint affair, but I still followed it, at least on Twitter. (I dutifully blogged the event for quite a while, and if you really want to, you can plough through my blog posts for 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017).

This year, thanks to the Great Leveller, SARS-Cov2, it was again possible to attend the whole event without stirring from home or spending a cent.

So here’s how it went:

After an elegant introduction by John Vallance, Chief Librarian, speaking to us from an empty Mitchell Library, President of the Library Council George Souris spoke from his home and introduced Gladys Berejiklian, who somehow found time off from crisis-management to record a short message. John Vallance then announced the winners without any frills apart from little speeches from a range of relevant politicians:

Multicultural NSW Award went to The Pillars by Peter Polites (Hachette Australia). Peter did a to-camera piece expressing gratitude to, among other things, his publisher’s bowties.

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting: Counting and Cracking, S Shakthidharan and auxiliary writer Eamon Flack. The writer, the second from Western Sydney: ‘This award helps to weave this little story from Western Sydney into the tapestry of all the great Australian stories.’ Eamon Flack used his platform to contrast the ‘neglect and carelessness’ of current art policy with the years of policy that enabled Counting and Cracking to happen.

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting: joint winners The Cry, Episode 2, Jacqueline Perske (Synchronicity Films), and Missing, Kylie Boltin (SBS). Kylie Boltin dedicated the award to her mother and grandmother. Her grandmother died yesterday.

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature: Ella and the Ocean, Lian Tanner, Jonathan Bentley (Allen & Unwin). Both author and illustrator spoke. She spoke of starting the book twelve years ago and then leaving it in the folder marked ‘Abject Failures’ for years. He, a humble illustrator: ‘Thank you for choosing me.’

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature: Lenny’s Book of Everything, Karen Foxlee (Allen & Unwin). Karen said, ‘I want to use this platform to thank readers everywhere who continue to buy books in these times. I want to thank everyone who supports the arts.’

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry: Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness, Peter Boyle (Vagabond Press). Peter Boyle paid tribute to his late partner Debora Bird Rose (herself a great writer).

Indigenous Writers’ Prize: The White Girl, Tony Birch (University of Queensland Press). Tony Birch gave a shout out to ‘every Blackfella across Australia who is writing’.

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction: from 136 entries, the winner was Tiberius With a Telephone, Patrick Mullins (Scribe Publications), a book about William McMahon. Patrick Mullins, looking scarily young, acknowledged his debt to writers and journalists whose work was important to his, and to the many people he interviewed.

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: Real Differences, SL LIM (Transit Lounge). SL LIM looked even younger, with pink hair and a soft toy, and plugged her coming book, which (I think I heard correctly) calls for the end of the family.

Fiction (Christina Stead Award): The Yield, Tara June Winch (Penguin Random House). Tara June Winch spoke of the centrality of language to human life. ‘It is a sacred thing,’ she said, in Wiradjuri. The Yield also won the People’s Choice Award and the Book of the Year. Tara June Winch got to speak again, and spoke of her esteem and fellow feeling for the other writers having a hard time just now. She asked the Federal Government to treat ‘our sector’ as our families do. ‘We can’t tell you the story of what is happening to our country now if the only thing on our minds is how to afford the next week’s rent.’ She hopes that our First Languages will be included in our schools’ curriculum.

That was it. It turns out that though I’d read a couple of the shortlisted books, I hadn’t read a single one of the winners, and had seen only one of the performances – the absolutely stunning Counting and Cracking.

You can watch the whole ceremony at:

I think of Mierle Laderman Ukeles

I’ve been thinking of Mierle Laderman Ukeles a lot in recent weeks. At the supermarket checkout, passing the post deliverer in the street, receiving a hand-delivered book from Gleebooks, putting the garbage out for collection, seeing a childcare centre that has stayed open, and especially when being tested for Covid–19 by a young man in a mask and a blue gown several sizes too big for him, I feel the urge to say, ‘Thank you for keeping us alive,’ and think of her.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles {Wikipedia entry here) has been the unsalaried artist in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation since the late 1970s. I first heard of her when the Emerging Artist was doing her MFA and regaling me with stories of public art projects. One of them was Ukeles’ Touch Sanitation. In this performance art project, she spent eleven months in 1979–1980 visiting each of the New York Sanitation Department’s districts and shaking hands with every worker who would accept her handshake, roughly 8500 of them. She looked each worker in the eye and said, ‘Thank you for keeping New York City alive.’

The conversations didn’t stop there – she also listened to the workers, and documented their personal stories. There are some wonderful photos (for example, here, here, here and here).

Plenty of people have commented that in Covid-19 times the poorly paid, low-esteem jobs are being recognised as essential and offered more respect if not better remuneration. Artists help us make sense of our times. Mierle Laderman Ukeles did this major performance 40 years ago: it speaks directly to our circumstances now.

Mary Oliver’s House of Light

Mary Oliver, House of Light (Beacon Press 1990)

When Covid-19 was just a cloud on the northern horizon, I borrowed this book from a street library. Poems by Mary Oliver, I thought, are just the thing for the times ahead: she consistently holds out to her reader reminders of what it means to be alive and human on this planet.

Within days most street libraries had closed down.

So, what was this book that I may have risked lives to acquire?

For a start there’s a lot of death in it. Mary Oliver seems to have spent a lot of time outdoors, watching plants, birds and animals, though ‘watching’ might be too mild a word: the poems bear witness to a deep attention, contemplation, absorption.

The first poem in the collection, ‘Some Questions You Might Ask’, is a kind of manifesto: ‘Is the soul solid, like iron?’ it asks; then, ‘Who has it, and who doesn’t?’ and after considering the moose, the swan, the black bear and other animals, the poem ends:

What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about the roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

These lines dance on the edge of naffness. But they manage not to fall: they convey a strong sense of the speaker seeing these things, at least in her mind’s eye, with great clarity, and her pseudo-theological question, ‘Do animals have souls?’ comes to read as code for a joyful embrace of what she sees. That embrace is there in all these poems. Sometimes it has to be fought for, as in ‘Singapore’, which begins with the image of a woman washing something in a toilet bowl at an airport:

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labour

You can read that whole poem at this link to see for yourself where she goes from there. I think she pulls it off. (At this link, you’ll find a vehemently opposite view.)

You could think of Mary Oliver as a 20th century (and almost two decades into the 21st) devotional poet. That opening poem about souls certainly reminds me of primary classroom lessons from the nuns, and, for instance, ‘That Summer Day’ opens with a question straight out of the catechism I studied in primary school: ‘Who made the world?’ But there’s a difference. The poem doesn’t answer the question. It leaves it as an expression of awe, leaving hints of a creator God there in a take-it-or-leave-it way. The central lines of this poem are:

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
But I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass

The poem is reaching for a way to express feelings that used to be attached to religious piety, but to free them from religious connotations. I think of Richard Dawkins writing about wonder without resiling even slightly from his militant atheism. Mary Oliver is similarly reclaiming wonder, though the line, ‘I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,’ carefully formulated to allow that she may know about ‘prayer’ as opposed to ‘a prayer’, indicates that she’s not oppositional, just going a different way. That poem ends:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your wild and  precious life?

It’s an exhortation, not to be virtuous (the first poem of hers I read begins ‘You do not have to be good’), but to notice what it is to be alive.

I want to talk about death, though. Not just because of Covid-19, which I think of as a curtain-raiser for the hugely destructive climate-change crisis, but because it’s an insistent theme of these poems. The nature that they so closely and lovingly observe involves ruthless killing, but the death of the speaker, or death in general, is often evoked. Here is ‘The Terns’ (click or the image to enlarge, of read the poem at this link):

In the first 18 lines, the speaker is doing her usual thing, noticing the life in the wetlands near her home. The lines are filled with a birdwatcher’s delight. Then the lines

This is a poem
about death

come as a surprising twist. At first they seem to reach back and highlight the ‘little silver fish’, whose violent death has gone almost unnoticed. But that’s not where the poem goes:

about the heart blanching
in its folds of shadows because it knows
someday it will be
the fish and the wave
and no longer itself

I don’t think she’s offering the image of the terns vanishing under the water and then coming back as an almost mediaeval allegory for death and resurrection, though you might read it that way. As I see it, with these lines, the speaker’s mood intrudes into the poem. She’s not happy, and death is on her mind. It’s her heart that she imagines blanching, and she’s the one who knows she’ll be re-absorbed into the natural world, that her consciousness will cease to be.

But then:

this is a poem about loving
the world and everything in it

We might have expected ‘This is a poem about living’, but this small surprise carries the weight of the poem. It’s not offering a vision of life after death; the terns’ diving and rising don’t symbolise death and resurrection after all. The notion of being re-absorbed into the natural world can have in it a deep joy – it’s like that Sweet Honey in the Rock song, ‘Breaths‘ (If you don’t know it, click on the link). Re-absorption isn’t about being eaten by worms in the grave, or scattered as ashes, or even planted under a tree. In death, what remains of us will continue to be part of this dynamic universe.

To love ‘the world and everything in it’, including oneself, is a completely appropriate response to such thoughts. It’s a long way from, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, no evil will I fear.’ I just read on Wikipedia that Mary Oliver dealt with a lot of abuse in her childhood. I think that’s what saves her poems from being glibly Life Affirming. There’s always a sense, as in this poem, that the affirmation is not so much made as won in the face of mostly unnamed contrary forces.