Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation…
2 Corinthians 6:2
We did not choose you, would not repeat you. Grief has built upon grief: ash and smoke first, Then this, a time we can only call "Unprecedented". And how it goes on, How quickly "normal" becomes a word Stripped of all meaning. How quickly "Stay safe" Replaces "See you later." We saw none Of this coming. Jetpacks and life on Mars Were my childhood predictions, not this. Yet future creeps up unannounced, and we, Had we heard her coming, would have moved to Iceland, or bought shares in hand sanitizer. Neither would we have chosen growth, or grace Bulldozing our plans and saving us instead.
First you will learn about smiles, how much you smile, what's contained in a smile, what's implied in the different degrees of smile: in a curl of the lip at a funny thought, in the mouth's outstretched corners to greet the close acquaintance, in the sardonic phrase, the empathic moment. All these things you will learn when they cannot be seen.
And eyes. You will learn about eyes. How readily you can recognise eyes across a courtyard or carpark, how much you can guess of a heart or a day from the eyes poking out above the nose.
And breath. You will learn about breath. You will taste it, smell it, absorb it all day. You will choose your words and your silence to preserve moments when you can simply breathe. You will long to stand in the garden beside your office and do nothing in that afternoon air but take off your mask and breathe.
And faces - you will catch, in their absence, the beauty, the wonder of faces, the heart-catching, God-splendoured glory of faces. You will long for the faces that you loved and despised, will search the room for these faces, will wish that these faces could transfigure their otherness straight into yours. You will cover your face and stifle your breath and halve your smile in hope of the day, to work for the day, when all of our faces are back.
What the day brings is anyone's guess: Students in masks, temperature checks at the front gate, But what else? Prognoses and rules change by the minute; What yesterday was harmless today may destroy. Brave new day that has such features in it. And so, the day lying open Like a box, like a question, I rejoice to see vermilion horizon That smiles on the locked-down and the risen alike.
I wrote this poem yesterday for the third installment in a series of videos about being a neighbour. As I wrote, I was contemplating the prospect of my Melbourne suburb being the next to go into lockdown. Little did I know that today the whole city would be put back into lockdown. So I’m posting the poem today, as my city prepares for six more weeks inside. I look forward to sharing the film with you when it’s finished. Stay safe.
Curtains are borders between me and the street. Next door is an unseen checkpoint away; Other postcodes have police blockades And I count the days until my home is the same.
By the bay we watch Numbers, statistics, localities named. Quiet suburb whispers its fears. No scapegoat to name, only
The innate mistrust of the island state That says, "I choose who comes here." How did this come here? What conspiracy brings us cheek to cheek
With the airborne griefs that plague all humankind, save us? This happens Only on TVs, never in 3d Where it reaches out with power to grab.
And does it console to know that, Somewhere, over oceans, others suffer Far worse than us? Hardly. I must view you up close to take comfort in your distance.
When I open curtains, my neighbour crosses street, Crosses seas, to land at my doorstep, breathing, "It's coming; you're next. The only place left Is our father's house, and we must share."
When others horde, share.
When others sneeze, do not be startled.
When the numbers rise, take heart.
For your life is more than your days on earth
and your planet is more than a virus.
When the shops are packed with people and
the shelves are emptied of products, do not
push and shove and hate the man
who found the tissues that you missed.
For your life is more than tissues.
When cupboards are jammed with tins and cans
and only wholemeal pasta’s left,
rejoice that you’re forced to eat healthier stuff,
and go plant some veggies so that when they yield
you can take some to your elderly neighbours.
Buy bulbs to plant in autumn soil
so that, when this is over, you can see spring arise.
Watch the news, but do not fret.
Pray more than you scroll through Twitter feeds.
Share your toilet paper.
This morning, because the start of daylight saving tricked my son into sleeping in, I had time to read. So I opened up the new poetry anthology from Proost Poets, Reaching for Mercy, a collection that I contributed to. I must admit that, the first time I looked at it, when I had just received a copy, I mostly looked for my poems, then to see if I knew any of the names. But this morning I decided to be less narcissistic and began from the front cover, and what I found as I started reading the editors’ reflections and the opening poems was a series of voices that felt familiar, like companions who cared about the same things and had walked the same paths as me: not all the same as me – some far from it – but reminders that a solo act like writing is still not done alone. When the struggle for authentic hope and faith in this world feels an increasingly steep up-hill climb, collections like this can help us feel that we have companions, fellow-strugglers to go with.
To find out more about the collection and get a copy, go here.