Surrounded by the mud hut buildings, I would climb onto a branch of a tree that lay across our compound and read. It was an unusual activity for a young girl growing up in Kakuma refugee camp. I knew no one else who read for the sake of reading. My legs dangling beneath me, I was firmly drawn into the story, reading as fast I could as I raced against the sunset. Everything went dark in Kakuma after sunset, there was no electricity.
The stories in those books saved a part of my life. They kept me dreaming, and dreaming is living for a tomorrow too far to grasp. Those stories, in the words of poet Ben Okri, ‘didn’t just conquer fear’, they introduced me to new worlds; sometimes they suggested the possibility of a new self.
I returned to stories, by others and those I wrote myself, to make sense of the pandemic using them as anchors to chatter through these uncertain times. I had a story for the start of the lockdown in March, a story for the middle during June, and a story for when we thought it was the end, around October. In this latest lockdown, I had nothing.
The first piece at the beginning was about acceptance. Accepting, without harsh self-judgement that things have changed for the worse, at least for many if not all, was going to be important in helping us identify how we may need to cope. I thought no matter how relatively privileged we undoubtedly are to be living in Australia, there is only so many times one can tell themselves “I am so lucky” before it is no longer a useful coping tool. It takes you far, just not all the way. What I suggested was a pause to acknowledge that things have changed and that it hurts, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.
By June, things had gotten worse and it was not enough to just cope. For Victorians we went from a state of emergency to a state of disaster. In this state coping seemed like a short-term strategy which was based on the idea that things will improve soon enough. Things had changed so much that it was no longer about coping, but changing to meet the new challenge of ‘permanent uncertainty’. My second piece was about cultivating an inner life. What I wanted was to salvage from the wreck left by this pandemic a fresh point of view and a new way of life. I did not want to return to the rush of my life as it was before. I wanted to begin the imperfect process of practising a more lived life.
As things began to open up in October, I reflected, in my third piece, on what I had learned from nearly a year spent in some form of lockdown. As life slowed down, not travelling to work, not catching up with friends and family, I had many extended moments of silence. I read poetry. I wrote. I went for long purposeless walks.
What came as a surprise was the delightful joy I found in the ‘daily miracles of life.’ How the spring sun rested on the leaves or reflected on your skin, how we still had freedoms, even the freedom to just sit still. As silly as that might sound, it is not original. Khalil Gibran, in The Prophet, writes that “could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy”. The daily miracles of waking up, of the small acts of freedoms, like going for a walk, become enough.
I found Victoria’s latest lockdown emotionally harder. I tried to develop a narrative for survival, something to create meaning out of the new change. I had nothing but an empty well of resilience depleted from my frequent requests to keep going.
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