Panic, grief, then wonder: the virus has taken away my old life and replaced it with something new

Covid-19 means I’m getting to know my own house. It’s like it just stood patiently, waiting years for me to properly inhabit it.

Everything, even the most chaotic events, have their particular narrative and timeline.

After the disbelief, then the panic, after the shock and the fear, after days of being poleaxed by dread, and other days of being overcome with a strange sort of grief (grief for what? Maybe our old lives?), there comes a reluctant acceptance.

This acceptance is not an agreement or peace with the new order, but a dawning realisation that life is radically changed. Acceptance lies in acknowledging how little we can control. For now, tension exists in not knowing how long we will dwell in this odd new world and what will happen to us while we’re here.

As we isolate ourselves and detach further and further from our old lives, nostalgia is unavoidable. The things that induce longing are strange.

Like yesterday, when someone posted on Twitter that it was five weeks since three baboons escaped from a lab in Sydney’s inner-west.

Five weeks? Five weeks? It feels like a different decade, another era.

Rather ridiculously, I was struck down by an intense wave of nostalgia for the night the baboon story was the most exciting thing happening in Australia. There we were, a group of journalists, in the beer garden of a bar in Surry Hills farewelling a friend who was moving to Hong Kong – gone for a year at least.

The friend is now back from Hong Kong and in quarantine. We are all isolating in our houses, communicating by text and Zoom. Who knows where the baboons are. Who cares?

Humid nights in bars, and rounds of cold beers, and sitting crammed on the outside table, getting worked up about escaped baboons feels like paradise, lost.

For those of us who are most at home out in the world, whose hobbies are restaurants and bars, whose familiar places are airports, whose actual houses are merely a place to sleep and do laundry, have found the order to stay at home has been a hard one.

Home is out there, not in here.

And so we miss our homes in the world, quite desperately.

Daily there are reminders of these homes: an old boarding pass falls out between the pages of a book, a foreign coin is found in the pocket of a winter coat, a faded receipt for a meal at a favourite, now shuttered restaurant in Melbourne discovered at the back of a drawer during an iso-decluttering spree. Each brings back a memory of before.

Waking at 4am most nights, disoriented and confused, I keep thinking: I’ve got to get home. Home to the friends and the airports, and the cities, home to the restaurants, and the beaches, and home to the art galleries, home to the pubs and live music gigs, home to the friends’ houses, and home to my parents, and home to the bars and the buses and trams. But of course, I can’t. None of us can.

Each day I hear of more job losses, careers and business wrecked in a day. I fret about the pandemic of loneliness. Last week I got my first video-link funeral invitation. On Zoom I have drinks with my school friends, work colleagues and friends overseas. It cheers me up, but it reminds me of how much I miss them and the world out there.

But something else is happening.

Just as it takes time for your eyes to adjust to the dark after the midday sun, so it is with this. Of all the strange and wondrous places to find yourself in, perhaps the strangest yet is home.

I’m getting to know my own house. It’s like it just stood here patiently, waiting for years for me to properly inhabit it. To move in fully, to finally stay put.

Yesterday I pulled out some knee-length weeds and really noticed the soil for the first time – dry and pebbly. I joined Pinterest and fantasised about a garden. This for now is an achievable dream, an activity allowed within the parameters of the Public Health Act.

And I’m meeting neighbours – at a distance or on WhatsApp or as I cycle past their homes. One of them, a complete stranger, picked up some outdoor furniture for me because I don’t have a car. I gave her a bottle of wine. We vowed one day to drink it together.

A man in my street had us over last week and lit a large fire in his backyard. He made dinner that we ate on our laps, as the embers flew up in the cold wind. Maybe once upon a time the conversation might have been stilted, but we had something to talk about now. I told him I was thinking of fostering a dog but needed a gate. He told me he’d cut his own gate in half, make something secure and install it at my place.

Another neighbour has started a local bread run. On Sunday night he came around with a loaf of sourdough that was still warm from the oven. He also dropped off some petrol and a whipper snipper for the weeds.

And the sunsets here have been wild. We go down to the oval to pause and watch them glow. Large, vivid, red and orange – walking towards them feels like entering a cold inferno. At night the sky is bright and full of stars.

The seasons are changing. I have time to sit under a tree and watch the light filter through the leaves, casting shapes on my arm. Soon the leaves will turn from green to red, and I’ll be here to see it.

This morning there was frost on the ground, like a crust of diamonds – brilliant for a minute under the sun before it melted away.

I think of that Robert Frost poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay, and how it pertains to not just the diamond lawn and technicolour sunsets, but everything right now.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

This post originally appeared in The Guardian, by Brigid Delaney

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