Back in March, when the whole country went into lockdown to try to flatten the Covid-19 curve, I started a series of cooking stories on Instagram. Each night after I put my son to bed, I’d head to the kitchen and fire up the stove. I’d document each stage carefully (well, as carefully as one can while getting progressively more drunk) and when I’d finished I would sit down at a nicely set table and slowly enjoy the meal I’d made.
That was the first lockdown.
Last week, as Melbourne entered the fourth week of staying home, I smeared cream cheese and pesto on two rice crackers and ate them standing up at the kitchen sink. I was still hungry afterwards, so I stood in front of the fridge and ate sliced deli ham straight from the packet. The night before, I had four spoonfuls of peanut butter from a jar. The night before, an entire bottle of wine.
This enforced isolation, it hits different the second time round.
Back in March, when the whole country was in it together, there was a sense of shared solidarity. I watched people hauling giant bags of flour home from the supermarket in my neighbourhood, everyone eager to join in the very 2020 trend of learning to bake sourdough.
I brought my own giant bag home, feeding my starter at night and taking pleasure in how well it bubbled the next morning. I baked loaves for my neighbours, carefully placing the dough next to my heater to ensure a good rise. They were mediocre loaves, but I was determined to make the next one better than the last.
Now, the starter sits sad and starving on the shelf. I haven’t fed it for months. The giant bag of flour rests in front of the oven, still only half used. And while my neighbours may be glad for respite from the heavy, undersized baked bread they felt obliged to accept in the hallways, the exchanges they’ve been replaced with swing between fraught worry and listless despondency.
On Thursday, an increasingly exhausted looking Premier, Dan Andrews, announced at the daily press conference that Victoria had recorded its worst day of the virus so far: 723 new infections, with 13 deaths overnight. By Sunday night, any remaining hopes of an end to lockdown had been dashed, and we were heading into a further six weeks of even more restrictive measures.
The starter sits sad and starving on the shelf
This explains the malaise that has, for want of a better word, infected our community here in Victoria. Back in March, when it was all just beginning, the point was to prevent explosive community transmission like this. We were ‘all in it together’, doing our bit for the country – saving lives! – and our efforts were rewarded with seeing that curve steadily flatten. It felt like things would get back to normal fairly quickly, and we looked forward to what that meant, which was more of the incidental joys that life brings.
There is a terrible grief in realising you were kidding yourselves. That while we may one day get to enjoy these little wonders, for now this is the new normal. Masks. Distancing. Isolation.
And people are emotionally tired now. The great collegiate push we all engaged in during the first lockdown has been replaced by agitation and anxiety. When will we be allowed to see our families again? Our friends? Our lovers?
In a week, my son will turn four. He’s adapted remarkably well to “the germ”, and is diligent about applying his “hamitiser” on the days we leave or enter our building for a quick run to the “sukamarket”. But like all of us, he misses his friends. At this stage of the game, stoicism is in a constant battle with loneliness.
There is a great weight of worry pressing down on all us, and it’s whispering the same thing in our ears: how long can this really go on for?
Perhaps we will return one day to life as we knew it. Or at least, a version of that life. If there’s a silver lining to any of this at all, maybe it’s in realising that true happiness has always been present in simplicity. A beautiful life is made up of the most extraordinary of ordinary magic. Spontaneous nights out. New friendships formed. Dinner parties. Romantic dates. Flirting with someone new, and being able to look forward to the moment when someone you desire touches you for the first time. Brushing hands with a stranger in the supermarket and laughing instead of recoiling. Sunday afternoons spent in sunny beer gardens. Children playing together at the park.
I’ve been sitting here hours trying to figure out how to end this piece, but the truth is that I don’t know. The piece is still being written. We are writing the words as it happens. And so we wait, and we watch.
And one day, hopefully we’ll be able to tell the story of what we’ve learned.
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