1. A Shout to All Our Elders
2. THE ‘IT’S OKAY’ LIST
A Memoir in Progress
You have lived alone for over two decades.
I love my own space, you tell yourself. I enjoy my own company. And while I am a sociable creature, I’m happy not having people around 24/7. I’ve got my routine down as a sole-trader and writer, working (mostly) for myself from home, from the library and, in the last 14 months, from my office at the University of QLD.
But in the first week of self-isolating (from March 24 onwards), you realise something very quickly:
You don’t like being forced to be in your own company.
You miss your colleagues terribly. You pine for the welcoming team within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit. The coffee meetings at Wordies – those you miss too.
You even start longing for the CityCat rides from West End to St Lucia and back. The short trips, you tell yourself, were sometimes the most peacefully perfect few minutes of your day.
And so, in that first week of iso, you organise an ATSISU Friday night social get-together via Zoom.
Let’s all share the high and low points of the week, you encourage them brightly, any moments of recognition you’ve had about yourselves.
You are the last to speak and when you do, you are almost immediately overwhelmed with emotion.
You aren’t a crybaby but you cry.
Why? You want your colleagues to know that although you are only part-time, you have always loved walking into the office.
You have always made me feel welcome, you sob to them, and I have valued every day. You have impacted my life in a way I hadn’t realised until now.
They look at you not quite knowing how to react.
You feel a failure that night.
I’m the one meant to be supporting others who may have been struggling, you reprimand yourself. But I’m the person who is struggling.
You look at yourself in the mirror.
This is me, Anita Heiss, you say to your reflection. I am a woman, I am confident, but right now I feel alone and lonely, in a way that I have never felt before.
And so, you persist over many weeks to follow with the Virtual meetings.
That is, until everyone begs off from Zoom fatigue
Being alone, living along, working alone by choice is one thing. Being alone due to a pandemic is a whole new experience.
You speak often via phone (and Zoom) with tiddas in the same situation.
We miss our breakfast or brunch meetings, you cry to each other. Those rock-bottom-Friday drinks together, no more coffee catch-ups that started with hugs and ended with laughter. No more of what we knew of our working and social lives. Not for a while anyway.
You are creatives and entrepreneurs alike, feeling isolated, lacking focus, struggling to get work done.
But how can we, you all wail, with the white noise of international trauma and fear of the unknown ringing in our ears?
It gets to the point where your own personal emotions ride a roller-coaster. Your mental-health is challenged from the moment you open your eyes each day, usually in the dark of morning.
And you find yourself using a particular phrase when you talk to others via text, phone and the never-ending Zooms you have.
It’s okay, you tell them. We do what we need to do to get through.
But what do you need to do to get through!
You’ve always been good at lists, so you decide to create an ‘It’s Okay’ list. It grows weekly and turns out to be quite impressive. Things you convince yourself are ‘okay’ grow weekly.
It’s okay to eat and drink whatever I want
During isolation you find a new capacity to drink wine, low-carb beer, bubbly and vodka.
You also cook A LOT and you bake your first cake in about a decade. Thanks to this item on the list your waistline grows. But that’s ‘okay’ too, because, so you tell yourself: Being in iso is not the time to start depriving oneself of some of life’s pleasures – wine, chocolate, almond croissants, chocolate, ice-cream, chocolate…
You get where I’m coming from, right?
It’s okay to sit in my pjs and watch Netflix for hours on end
There have been times in your life when you would not switch the TV on for days on end.
Not during iso.
No, during ISO you and your Sydney Swans pjs spend many, many, many hours watching the 100 episodes of Jane the Virgin. And just when you think they can’t drag the series out any longer, there is another season. But there is a compensation. Right towards the end, the story speaks to you as a daughter and as a writer. The show gives you a vague idea for a new novel.
You feel vindicated.
At least those hours on the couch were research!
It’s okay for me to let my hair go grey
You can’t believe so many women were still going to the hairdresser when getting your hair done is never essential. You soon realise who your vain friends are – and that makes you laugh.
And so you are happy to embrace your greying temples, enjoy washing your hair every second or third day. At least your new fake messy bun makes it look like you’ve gone to some effort on work Zooms.
It’s okay for me not to keep in touch
You risk offending friends who want to catch up. I’m practicing self-isolation, you tell them. I value my health and I have to think of my mother (she is the one you desperately want to see when it is safe to do so).
The consequence of this particular ‘It’s okay’ item is that you go for one whole month without having a meal with another person. And then your social desires show themselves and you ease yourself into one meal a week.
For your sanity.
To sit at the same table as another person, a tidda who is like family.
To get dressed to eat.
No girl is an island, right?
It’s okay for me to get takeaway
(This is one of your favourites.)
Local businesses need to be supported, you tell yourself.
You choose three local restaurants: Thai, Greek and seafood. Three times a week you give them your money and they feed you really well. Their meals wash down with the copious amounts of the ‘It’s okay to drink wine’ while you watch Jane the Virgin.
It’s okay for me not to be creative and produce
Perhaps one of your biggest learnings comes early in iso when you are on deadline with an edit of your new novel. So many people assumed you were ‘getting so much done’ in terms of writing, when the truth was that you had never been so unfocussed as a writer.
It was during that deadline / pressure phase that you told yourself: It’s okay not to be a creative genius, it’s okay not to be as productive as you normally are, because we are not living in normal times. Nothing is normal. Nothing.
Relieving yourself of that pressure was liberating. You mentally freed myself and your whole mind, your body and your spirit were relieved.
As you come to the end of isolation, you may have put on weight and have grey hair (easily fixed), but you tell yourself there is nothing that you would change in terms of the way you navigated your way through those weeks and months. You try to convince yourself that if ever you need to isolate again, you will go back to your blueprint for iso-survival and massage it to fit the time.
And as for the editing of your new novel? Well, you learn something: No matter that you have said to yourself that it’s okay to not be as productive as you normally are, the fact is, it’s okay.
You are Anita Heiss, and you are a writer.
3. Anita, on writing during lockdown
Dr Anita Heiss (Queensland, Australia) is the award-winning author of non-fiction, historical fiction, commercial women’s fiction, children’s novels and travel articles. She is a proud member of the Wiradjuri Nation of central NSW, an Ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, the GO Foundation and Worawa Aboriginal College. Anita is a board member of the State Library of Queensland, the University of Queensland Press and Circa. She is a Professor of Communications at the University of QLD and artist in residence at La Boitte Theatre, currently adapting her novel Tiddas for the stage. Her novel Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms is the 2020 University of Canberra Book of the Year. Anita enjoys eating chocolate, running half-marathons and being a ‘creative disruptor’.