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  • Writer's pictureJulianne Negri

On Being Productive in a Pandemic.

“One afternoon at the end of August, Moominpappa was walking about the garden and feeling at a loss. He had no idea what to do with himself, because it seemed that everything that was to be done had already been done or was being done by somebody else.” Moominpappa At Sea. Tove Jansson

We are all at under pressure to “pivot” our enterprises to the times. To be agile. To be creative. To make it work. All this talk of Shakespeare writing King Lear while quarantining for the plague – I mean really?

Like Moominpappa, I am at sea with how to work while the world is in the grip of a pandemic.

Everyone can and seems to be, online, starting a podcast, building community, sharing ideas, writing a novel, performing a livestream music concert, rewriting songs about COVID- 19, making jokes; it’s all so noisy out there. Everyone rushing about to stay relevant, stay employed, make money, promote themselves and best of all, reach out to others. It’s admirable how people are managing in these times. Authors entertaining the kids with read-a-longs and activities (hooray!). Musicians giving live concerts from their lounge rooms. There’s a burst of adrenaline driven outpouring of connectivity.

And yet, like Mooominpappa, it feels like everyone has got everything covered. What’s left to do?

The reality is we are in a terrible predicament. In reality we are sad. Our lives have been changed drastically. We might be privileged with a roof over our heads and in good health. Food on the table. We might be under pressure to keep these things. We might be thinking at lengths how to keep employed. We might face work pressures to reinvent. Reimagine. Remain relevant. We are all adjusting daily to changes to our lives that just keep coming. Working from home – living all day with each other, with kids doing schoolwork with us at the kitchen table, the pantry cupboard constantly swinging on it’s hinges while a pandemic is howling at the door. For creatives there is pressure to suddenly change gears and step up your work too.

But my mind keeps turning to lost loved ones. Especially my mum. Practical and resourceful. Those strong hard working hands. My mother who had eight kids and who I know would approach this all with pragmatic, stoic, resignation. Me? I’m rushing from social media channel to pandemic graph to work emails to baking cakes to washing my hands to exercising to being in the moment to appreciating nature to helping kids… like a chook with it’s head cut off.

We keep getting told this is unprecedented. But not unimaginable. Those who have read dystopian fiction ask themselves: are we are only in the first act? I keep thinking, it’s a pandemic – not a writing retreat. My instincts turn to survival. My emotions to grief. I am thinking about my family. Worrying about them. I called my brother the other day. We are not a touchy-feely family. Before I hung up, I said to him, “I want to say I love you.” He replied, “For fuck’s sake I’m not going to die.”

What have we got to compare this surreal situation to? For me, there was a time that outside factors pulled the rug out from under me. At 28 weeks pregnant with my last child, the hospital detected I had vasa previa (don’t google it). It’s a blood vessel across the cervix that contains the baby’s blood and the mother’s. If undetected, has a 100% fetal mortality rate. If the vessel breaks, the baby bleeds to death. Sometimes the mother too. (I told you not to google it). If undetected, the baby dies while being born. After the ultrasound at the hospital that revealed this cervical time bomb, the hospital wouldn’t let me leave. Not at all. Not from that moment. I had no choice. It was surreal. They wanted me, a busy mother of four kids, to stay, not just in in hospital but in bed! For eight weeks! Until my baby was big enough to be born by caesarean! It was mind boggling.

My first reaction was denial. But I feel fine! Surely it won’t happen to me.

My second stage was bargaining – if I started to bleed how many minutes did I have until the baby died? How many minutes before I died? Would it be possible to stay at home and rush to the hospital in time?

You can probably imagine the midwives faces as I asked these questions.

More bargaining followed. Could I leave and just go home and pack my bags? No.

Could I get my hair cut? No. (Not even for 30 minutes.)

The third stage was anger.

The fourth was grief.

The fifth was acceptance.

From that moment on I was stuck in a hospital room. I couldn’t go outside. After a time, my toddler twins were not even allowed to visit me. But strangely, I adjusted. I dressed every morning. Did my hair and makeup. I read many books. I watched all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I taught myself to use Illustrator and a drawing tablet. I wasn’t productive. Or creative. I didn’t write King Lear. Because guess what? Being stuck in a precarious situation isn’t a writing retreat. All the while there was fear.

Barriers to productivity right now include the time-consuming task of watching this thing unfold. It’s a train wreck I can’t look away from. It’s historical. And epic. A pandemic. There is a compulsion to delve into the darkness of it. I want information of course. Be informed. I want to protect loved ones and myself. Do the right thing. But I also watch the graphs continually. Read the death tolls. Am I like the Defoe character in Journal of a Plague Year who wants to look into the grave pits? I’m reading The Trespassers by Meg Mundell about a pandemic outbreak on a ship. It has the phrases “PPE” “social distancing” “infection rate” “how long does it last on surfaces”. It's an excellent book. But not escapism.

All this talk of being agile. How about we just adjust? Get by. Do what we can. Be kind to each other. I mean, is self isolating a game we are trying to win at? Is it this a gift of time? I’m busier than ever. And writing requires headspace. Where is the headspace for immersive imaginary thought when I have to work at home, supervise the kids and their schooling and clean up their constant mess and keep them active? Check in with family and friends? All while keeping up to date with a barrage of information about the situation we are in?

Today I have watched the President's press conference, PM press conference, the Premier’s press conference, read seven emails from school, several from my work and checked the graphs a million times. A chunk of each day is consumed by the virus. I do math of the percentages. Get very sad. Sweep the floor. Wash my hands. It’s like when my mum had cancer and showed me a pile of brochures and information given to her by the doctor and said, “They want me to read all this. It’s like cancer is taking over my life.” No shit, Mum.

I appreciate the morale boosters, sure I do. I’ve cracked the quarantini joke as much as the rest. I join in with the creatives who are sharing. I admire those that can pivot on a ten-cent piece and turn their business to online, many, out of necessity, reinventing the wheel of their daily grind to embrace the restrictions of lock down. But right now, I’m like Moominpappa. I’m just so busy feeling. Going through the stages. Adjusting. Thinking. Preparing. Worrying. Wondering what I have to offer in the noise. And bracing for what comes next.

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