Had you told me last year that 2020 would bring months of ‘stay at home and bunker down’ time, I would have thought that it sounded like heaven. No more taxiing children around? No more daily commute and peak-hour traffic? Oodles of ‘free’ time to read? Great, sign me up. And true, at the beginning of lockdown, I thought that I would get so much reading done, and therefore so much blogging done…. But that hasn’t happened. Like many bloggers (and people in general), COVID-19 brought with it a level of anxiety that I have not previously experienced.
At the same time as this feeling of anxiety was creeping in, posts on social media popped up about how ‘industrious’ people were being – “I cleaned out my wardrobe!” and “I painted the fence!” and “I’ve finally knitted that jumper I bought wool for three years ago!” and “I’ve learnt Spanish!” and “I’m making my own sourdough #delicious #nomnom!” Huh.
Then came round two of the ‘maximising time’ posts – “My kids are really getting ahead in maths” and “Look at these macarons Master 6 whipped up for afternoon snack”.
Through the noise of painting, craft, calculus and baking, one thing became very clear to me – I can’t possibly write blog posts and worry about a pandemic at the same time. Great for those that can, although I think that’s a very small percentage of people. For most, the industriousness that they’re putting on social media is their anxiety talking. Specifically, when overwhelmed by uncertainty, some people focus on what they can control (such as their sourdough starter, or memorising conjunctions for Spanish verbs), and others (like me), do nothing. Both are defence responses – our reptilian brain relies on fight/ flight/ freeze for survival.
To understand what was happening with blogging, social media, and my lack of reading, I turned to Maslow’s hierarchy. Essentially, we can’t do the ‘self-fulfilment’ stuff when the ‘basics’ are in doubt (and blogging sits in the self-fulfilment category) – with our ‘foundation’ threatened, no wonder we feel anxious.
This is a Monday Musings post, and therefore needs an Australian literature reference. There are plenty of memoirs by Australian authors dealing with anxiety – this year alone I’ve read such books by Clare Bowditch, Georgie Dent and Nicola Redhouse. Equally, there are plenty of memoirs and novels that deal with anxiety in relation to a particular trauma. But what of stories that speak to those bottom rungs on Maslow’s hierarchy? Certainly stories about ‘pioneering’ fit (I’ll defer to other bloggers, such as Bill of The Australian Legend, who have a thorough knowledge of these books). But my mind turned to a book I read thirty years ago (so my memory is sketchy, but significantly, small details have stayed with me) – Amy’s Children by Olga Masters.
It’s the story of a young woman living in Sydney during WWII. The War is merely a backdrop – instead, the focus is on Amy and her decision to leave her children in the care of her parents in regional New South Wales, while she goes to Sydney to make a life for herself. Amy puts considerable effort into setting up a home. There’s a slow accrual of ‘things’ – a bed, a wardrobe, a kitchen table – and the coveting of the unobtainable (Amy’s fantasies include “…a little glass fronted cabinet containing a bottle of sherry and fine stemmed glasses and a barrel of wafer biscuits. She would put a match to the gas fire ‘to take the chill off the room’, without having to consider the cost…”). She digs a vegetable garden and meets the neighbours. She gets a job, and begins a relationship.
From memory, much was made of Amy’s ‘selfishness’ and lack of maternal feeling, but does the story read differently through a Maslow lens? Are Amy’s attempts to ‘set up house’ representative of her need to feel secure, both personally and in the context of a world at war? I’ll do a re-read and report back.
In my professional life, I spend a lot of time working with people suffering anxiety. Anxiety tends to be a very specific beast – different things trigger different people – however, the starting point for managing it doesn’t change (I call it ‘mental first-aid’). Basically, get some exercise (preferably with fresh air involved); eat well (I don’t mean lavish, I mean nutritious, so redirect Master 6 from macarons to paella); sort out your sleep; maintain social connections; and talk with someone if you’re not feeling great. Hopefully, with those things in order, the space for becoming engrossed in a book will return.
32 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Kate on anxiety, COVID and Aussie lit”
How lovely to see Amy’s Children mentioned here, and how apt!
I was pleased to see it mentioned too Lisa.
I plan a re-read Lisa (and my copy has all of my carefully added notes from Year 12!). I do wonder if I will feel differently about the book now that I’m a mother.
I know what you mean. I know there are sometimes good reasons to leave your children behind, but I know I could never have done that myself.
A number of bloggers have confessed to debilitating anxiety, at least at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown, and I think one of the things that has helped them, helped many of us probably, is the strong sense of community amongst lit bloggers.
Well said Bill, I think it has. It’s particularly nice that we are such an international lot.
Thank you Bill for organising these posts – there is a strong and very lovely sense of community in our little corner of the web 🙂
It’s been a pleasure, and no great effort on my part – I pushed that onto you guys.
Lovely post and very timely. It’s of great interest to me how people have reacted to the pandemic in such different ways.
Thanks Denise. I’m grateful to Kate and Bill for this one.
This article just crossed my radar – https://www.theguardian.com/global/2020/may/27/coronavirus-pandemic-personality-character – I’m a hibernator!
I think that Bill has put his finger on an important issue… the sense of community. I have just finished reading Stella Bowen’s Drawn from Life (she of AWM fame for her portrait of the Australian airmen who died on their mission so she finished the portrait from a photo). Born in Adelaide, but as expat since her twenties, Bowen wrote it during the war, when after her life in Paris with Ford Madox Ford was over, she had to go back to London and ended up in an Essex cottage right under the flight path of the Nazis. She was emotionally and financially insecure, and her physical safety was, like everyone else’s, in great peril. Yet she fixed up the cottage, grew vegetables, made preserves and wrote the book.
So, reading what Kate has to say about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, what was it that enabled her, and countless others like her, to transcend the first and second stages? I think it was the sense of ‘being all in this together’, for which the Brits were famous. (Of course there must have been some who couldn’t cope, but they were not spoken of, because the power of believing that everyone else was stoic was a key ingredient of morale.)
Oh yes, good point Lisa. And I think one of the good things Scott Morrison (and Jacinda Adern in NZ) did was to invoke Team Australia, and the idea that we are all in this together.
Anxiety is such a terrible thing. I have experienced all too much of it myself over the years. This is truly a time of anxiety. I think blogging about it and talking about it are actually a good thing. Hopefully this bad stuff will pass soon.
Thanks Brian. I sure hope so too.
Thank you Kate. That’s an antidote to a bad few weeks I had in the middle – beating myself up for not getting more done. A friend talked about how exhausted she was feeling and that was useful too. Getting out of bed is sometimes too big an effort when the world is crumbling! Once I’d realised that I was better able to get on with things.
Lovely to hear from you Margaret. Fellow feeling – that is, knowing one is not “the only one” – is such an important thing, isn’t it?
So important to cut ourselves some slack. It’s feeling a little ‘overused’ to say we are in ‘unprecedented times’, but we are! And therefore our reaction is unpredictable. No one particularly likes living with uncertainty but it is unusual for that uncertainty to be for so long and so far-reaching, and therefore we need to be kind to ourselves.
I wasn’t feeling panicked by covid19 but I do remember the initial shock when I walked around town and everything was empty and shut – streets empty of people, cafes/restaurants/shops closed, it felt eerie and sad and rather frightening. I’ve enjoyed the quiet and felt fairly safe in regional NSW yet still have found concentrating difficult – I thought I’d be doing online courses etc, instead I’ve been sitting/walking outdoors and reading books that weren’t too demanding. I found the loss of any social routine (book club/U3A classes etc) disconcerting (I live alone) and I wonder how much the television coverage of what was happening overseas contributed to people’s distress – I know I had to monitor how much news I watched. My reaction seems to have been to take things very quietly, go for walks and watch good movies! I feel a bit guilty I didn’t get more achieved!
I don’t think your experience is unusual Sue. I had a complication with elder care issues coinciding with COVID-19 so I can’t really comment, but I suspect I would not have achieved as much as I thought. And I think, even with more time, I would not have taken up all the wonderful online opportunities. Mr Gums is missing his U3A class.
I hope your mother is improving Sue (I think it is your mother?) – a friend of mine found it distressing to be unable to visit her mum in an aged care home for seven weeks during covid19.
I suspect there was an initial shock with a lot of people when everything shut down, and then I realised how quickly we got used to town being empty and quiet – but I guess maybe at least some of us got into a kind of survival mode by just keeping to a fairly minimal, undemanding routine (walk, play music, read, watch a movie, do a jigsaw etc) which I think is not unreasonable under such bizarre circumstances as a pandemic – and rather different to a war, as this enemy was invisible and made us wary of being around other people.
Thanks Sue. No, unfortunately she isn’t, but the good thing is that with opening up I have been able to visit her every day, and now my brother can too. It would have been horrendous to be able to visit her, so I feel for your friend. We have much to be thankful for in Australia don’t we.
I found this post both timely and helpful – had a sort of ‘aha moment’ : It’s anxiety! Like Sue, I miss the structure of social routine of book groups and U3A. I’ve also felt bad about doing so little while others are achieving so much on the homefront – bookshelves and cupboards reorganized etc etc. Thank you Kate.
Thanks Maggie. As I said to Sue, knowing we are not the only ones is really comforting or reassuring isn’t it.
I’m glad you can visit your mum now Sue. My friend said it was a blessing her mother has lost any sense of time, and didn’t know seven weeks was any different to a day – but for my friend, not being able to see her mother regularly was very distressing. Sending very best wishes to you.
Maggie, I wonder whether spending the time quietly as I did – just enjoying the autumn here (lovely colours, this is a cold part of the country), sitting in the sun having a cuppa and a read, watching SBS movies at night, going for walks – isn’t a bad way to have spent the time. Our society seems to value busyness so much and doesn’t seem to give much value to time spent more meditatively! Several of my friends have told me they have spent the time doing “not much, just quiet”. So you and I are not alone!
I’m glad the post came at the right time for you Maggie.
Thanks for this post. I do believe it helps to hear of other people’s experiences. I’ve learned that uncertainty is not good for my creativity.
Thanks Angela… Probably not surprising?
Well yes, creativity does sit higher on the pyramid!
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