Last month, for the first time in more than a year, I slept in a bed that was not my own. At the foot of a ravine, on the bend of a river, I fed logs into flames and drank red wine. I poked coals and consumed Sarah Sentilles’ Draw Your Weapons until the evening turned charcoal. Then I settled under the star-shot sky to think about the connections she had drawn between art and philosophy, trauma and morality.
Later I lay in bed and, through the bleed of rain down the wall-length window, read the constellations. To the sound of wind buffeting leaves and bending limbs, I traced the contours of my partner’s body. I fell asleep to the rushing sound of the river.
In the morning, as I searched for dry kindling, my mind tripped back to the questions explored in Draw Your Weapons: to the work that is done in the name of war, the things we are instructed to remember and those we are told to forget. To the commitment and subterfuge necessary for the creation of the violin crafted by and for Howard. The dark figures of Miles’ Iraq-inspired paintings. Sentilles’ weaving of creativity, damage and beauty as a way to make sense of it all, to elicit something meaningful. It made me think about the year before.
2020 was a schism. It was a flat-faced rock skimmed across the surface of time. It was the mounting pressure of residents locked inside public housing towers; masks, surgical gloves and hand sanitiser; constantly shifting rules. It was bunkering down, incessant checking of Twitter, Dan’s pressers, wondering whether there’d be a job through it all, and talking myself down from the ledge. It was also a slowed down breathing space in which four inhabitants of a single house folded back into familial connectedness.
Draw Your Weapons is the kind of book that teaches you how to read it, which is not to say that it’s didactic. Rather, by settling the reader into its fragmented structure, it shows you how to get comfortable with the lack of predictability. I can’t help but think, if I’d made my way to it at the beginning of the pandemic, it might have provided a map. Directions of some kind to quell my anxiety, to help me be more open to the opportunities for calm and beauty in the instability and danger of last year.
Nonetheless, in that strange year of limited freedoms and uncertainty, I did settle into a gentler life. Exchanged the manic pace of my previous existence for space and time to sit silent, to read, and watch, and listen.
I was distracted and soothed by the words of others. I found beauty and emotional connection in Mirandi Riwoe’s immersive and lyrically told Stone Sky Gold Mountain; in the music-shot nostalgia and restraint of Kirsten Krauth’s Almost a Mirror; and in Erin Hortle’s depiction of our relationship with animals, other people and ultimately ourselves in The Octopus and I.
There was escape and introspection in the lust, desire, and self-flagellation of Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, and Cleanness.
I devoured Laura Jean McKay’s sharply drawn The Animals in that Country; took my time savouring Ellena Savage’s unpicking of personal history, memory and trauma in Blueberries; and marvelled at the ability of poets to string together judiciously chosen words to powerful effect in Ellen van Neerven’s Throat, Thuy On’s Turbulence, and Omar Sakr’s The Lost Arabs.
Beyond the pages of books, I binge-watched Ozark, Sex Education, and Killing Eve. Took succour in the solidarity of the Twitter-writing community. But distraction and peace were punctuated by extreme downswings.
I wept for a friend lost. Stared, heart racing and sleepless, at the shadowy outline of my partner as he slept beside me in the deep of night. I yelled at the radio, turned off the television every time the Federal Government point scored and played politics with lives. I was angry in a way that was visceral. Infuriated at my powerlessness as I watched the people elected to look after us continue to turn unreservedly away from supporting the artists on whom we were all so heavily reliant. It was ironic, and disappointing. Yet it was not a surprise.
In the middle of last year, in the tenuously hopeful yet uncertain period that sat between Melbourne’s first and second lockdown, Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron was published. A blend of fable and eco dystopia, it reveals a strange yet familiar world; features a bird made of rain, a mountain recluse, and a symbiotic relationship between squid and the people who collect their ink in a brutal and visceral exchange. In this book, as well as his earlier Flames, Arnott conveys the grace, power and value of the natural world for its own sake and clarifies it not as an adjunct to or resource for humans. I thought about this a lot on my daily walks. In light of the Government’s unwillingness to address climate change, troubling as it was, I wondered whether the pandemic might be exactly what the natural world needs, what people need if any of us are to survive in the long run. I thought too much. I didn’t think enough.
Confined to a five-kilometre radius from my home, I walked, pressed fingers against local trees and tried to read the bark, watched spring flowers emerge, and magpies teach their fledglings to fly. I chalked words onto my driveway. Daily offerings to passers-by that said: make of this what you will, take it, add to it, think about it. Or don’t.
Sometimes I took those words and crafted them into stories. Some I photographed and posted on social media. All of them disappeared, scuffed by feet, washed off in the rain, or hosed away to be replaced by others. When my next-door neighbour’s children wanted to know what the words meant, I asked them to tell me, to write their own stories, draw their own pictures, and show me. It was a small connection with community, a way to make art outside the confines of my house.
In lockdown I could get to the beach, but not walk along it, I could walk so far as the car park of the ‘almost local’ wetlands, but I could not hike in the hills nor immerse myself in a space where I felt integrated in nature. Escape was only possible in my thoughts, and through the creativity of others. This is what you get when you live in the suburbs and a virus dictates the physical margins of your life.
Throughout it all, it would be fair to say that my thinking was fractured, my mind a storm of splintered thoughts and feelings. I had trouble bringing it all together, reconciling how life might be next.
On the four-hour drive home from the cabin, we talked about how strange it had been to be away from our house, the oddness of escaping the previous year’s claustrophobia to spend a weekend in a tiny cabin; the way our nervous systems seemed to drop into a space that resembled meditation when the surrounding world was trees and rivers, fire and wildlife, sky and stars.
We discussed the degradation of the world for human greed. The security and frustration of sustained close living; and the way it felt wrong to air our discomfort, which was privileged by the warmth and security of a permanent home.
As we pulled into our driveway, I recalled the towering trees beside the cabin, the sound of the river, and my feet carrying me away from it all towards the constant busyness that has returned to my post-lockdown life. With my fingers to the door handle, before I slipped back into my ‘real’ life, I took solace in the connections elucidated in Sentilles’ writing, and the knowledge that I could return to the cabin, or some other place like it, where I would feel small and insignificant in a way that would be everything.
Melissa Manning is the author of Smokehouse, an interlinked story collection set in southern Tasmania. Her award winning writing has been published in Australia, the US and the UK.