Published in Dumbo Feather today, a story from my neighbourhood. Photo: Ian Ferguson
Early in the call to stay-at-home I am out for some exercise, heading down to the Yarra river and descending a steep hill that scoops underneath the Eastern Freeway. A woman is walking towards me. Above us the traffic is quieter now, the steady roar has ceased and the cars cross overhead with distinct and separate sounds. But the walking woman—what is it about her gait that strikes me? I squint to take her in against the brightness of the light.
Her arms swing freely from shoulders that are not hunched with intent. She strides with gentle purpose, not the edgy ferocity of the determined exerciser. My newly quietened thoughts awaken: Look, here is a human walking. This is what it can be to walk. I see the grace of the woman’s gait, the joy in her step, the hope in her steady shoulders. There’s an unclenched optimism in her open hands.
Walking by the Merri Creek, I hear the birds with more clarity. Their sounds arise out of a surrounding quiet. The soundscape is clean without the roar of traffic, and there is no rush blurring the clarity of sight. Sounds are distinctive, they have edges. Thoughts arrive with a new gentleness when I am walking alone on the track. Bird song, this is birdsong.
I am surprised when in The Conversation Hour on ABC radio, Richelle Hunt announces Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a wonderful world’. I flinch, but then I weep. I recognise my experience exactly in the words of the song: “I see trees of green, red roses too.” Passing a neighbour’s garden I meet a rose with folded petals neat and compact, velvety, deeply coloured. The rose is composed, presenting itself like a still life. From the walking track, the shapes of trees are suddenly striking, their outlines etched against the sky.
At drama school, years ago now, we did an exercise called “the photograph.” In pairs we take it in turns to lead our partner who keeps their eyes closed until a signal. We are outside and choose a close-up detail, a fallen leaf, a spider web, a camouflaged insect. Like a sculptor we gently move our partner into a position where they will see what we have in store for them. “Now,” we say with the decisiveness of snapping a photo. Suddenly eyes blink open. Framed by the experience of darkness and waiting, opening our eyes in this game is like the vivid flash of childhood seeing.
In this era of COVID- 19, on the cusp of sleep, I startle at the noise from the plane flying low. I try to bunch my pillow around my ears. My thought lands in three distinct syllables: Aer-o-plane.
Aer-o-plane. It is the way we said it as children—with amazement. Planes used to be amazing. And in a way they are again now, there’s thrill and dread. “Aeroplane” spells relief at returning, horror of the virus and boredom in quarantine. I recall the movement of childlike lips around this wondrous set of sounds. The first two syllables spoken without closing the lips, the third with the gentle breath of the plosive “p.” It was delicious, like the way we said Aer-o-plane jelly.
There is something essential about the components of neighbourhood life now. Woman walking, bird-song, rose-petal, tree-green. And the far off world of aer-o-plane. I find I need to hold onto this beauty for soon there will be fracture, even to my world, far from the front lines.
As social distancing becomes more emphatic walkers skirt around each other. When I meet familiar neighbours on the path there is a halt from the impulse to reach out and greet—a drawback from the instinctive move to lean in and listen.
The words of poets accompany us when we can no longer walk together in easeful conversation. Mark Tredinnick’s new collection, A Gathered Distance, was published on the cusp of this pandemic. His words are prescient:
find a way to continue
To thrive, to flourish even, if you can,
regardless, to set seed, even when hope
Has lost its flight feathers and strangeness
Has swallowed the way your life ran…