Monday musings on Australian literature: Guest post from Kate on anxiety, COVID and Aussie lit

Today, I present another Monday Musings guest post coordinated for me by Bill (The Australian Legend), this one from Kate (booksaremyfavouriteand best), she of Six Degrees of Separation fame. Bill suggested a topic to Kate – one applicable to her professional interests and to what we are currently experiencing – and it seems she ran with it!
Thanks so much again to Bill and also to Kate for helping me out and for offering some fresh content for Monday Musings. Read on … and of course we’d love your comments  … How are you coping with COVID-19?

Kate’s post

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.

Book coverIt’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.