How heart-shakingly moving was Amanda Gorman’s poem The Hill We Climb which she read at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration. For me, it summed up so powerfully and with such grace and eloquence the choices that stand before us in the COVID era. While she was speaking of America, and against the background of the storming of the Capitol on 6th January, her wise words apply to all of us wherever we live. What also stood out for me – and gave me hope – was that Biden is a man of soul, of the heart, capable of compassion and empathy; the polar opposite to the morally-corrupt, orange-faced ego-maniac Reality TV business tycoon who previously held office. I won’t even mention his name.
It’s ironic in some ways that we mourn the pre-COVID world. So much of that world was already broken and unsustainable; the pandemic has magnified the challenges we face with global warming, food (in)security, factory farming, inadequate systems to deal with the rising mountains of waste, inequity on so many levels (the politics of vaccine distribution to developing nations just one example) and power-hungry corporations putting profit before people and planet.
And then the senseless destruction of forests in so many parts of the world. Since 2016 one football pitch of forest is lost every second. Not only are trees vital sinks for carbon, but emerging science indicates that trees are social creatures that communicate and support each other via an interconnected fungal highway. Who hasn’t experienced a sense of soul amid towering trees in a forest cathedral? I read an article in The Melbourne Age this weekend instancing how a tree on the brink of death bequeaths a substantial share of its carbon to its neighbours. How magnificent is that?
One of the benefits – if we can call it that – of COVID restrictions putting the brakes on ‘normal’ life (and my heart goes out to all those in the UK and other parts of the world faced with wide-scale community transmission, over-whelmed hospitals and high death rates, particularly those who don’t have the economic or social luxury of being able to socially-isolate) – is time to reflect, to slow down, to live more simply, to look out for our neighbours – get to know our neighbours even – to appreciate the small things, and importantly, to revere the natural world that sustains us. And I say revere deliberately.
In a pre-COVID post in February 2020, I wrote that Planet/Mother Earth can do without us and will cast us aside if we don’t look care for her. Recently I watched David Attenborough’s Witness Statement: A Life on Our Planet – on Netflix in which he went through the decades of his life demonstrating humanity’s impact on the planet as measured by population growth and the decline in wild spaces and biodiversity. It’s a compelling call to action. We have overrun the world he says, with nothing to stop us. We are intelligent but not wise, apart from nature, not a part of nature. Since that was filmed, COVID has swept across the world. If COVID doesn’t stop us from plundering the planet, polluting and over-consuming, nothing will. If we fail to clean up our act, more zoonotic viruses are waiting in the wings. Surely, that’s enough of a deterrent?
Now is our chance to change how we live our lives and how we interact with others and our environment, being kinder to ourselves, each other and the planet. Some say we’re doomed – human beings are inherently greedy, corrupt and selfish; history is merely repeating itself. Isn’t that a lazy let-out clause; a way of propping up the status quo?
We mainly read the gloom and doom stuff in the news – and there’s plenty of it – but we hear less about the initiatives to increase sustainability and ethics in the fashion industry, clever waste recycling, renewable energy and rewilding projects or community support schemes (one of my favourites the conversion of a red phone box in an English village into a community food larder). What a lot of schemes lack is the scale and infrastructure to achieve systemic change, but there’s opportunity for that to change. If we care enough and dare enough, we can all be part of that change through the choices, decisions and values we live by.
Tuning into the digital version of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival last August, I was struck by the words of film-maker Damon Gameau and his efforts to humanise climate change through story-telling, and his positivity: “we need to reframe the crisis as an opportunity and privilege to be alive at this time” and “Optimism is the basis of solutions for a sustainable future.” Like many commentators he instanced how major global events in the past brought about advancements, from the social changes triggered by the Black Plague to the creation of the NHS and welfare state in Britain after the Second World War.
Hope, like trees in the forest, nourishes the soul. One of my mother’s favourite phrases is: ‘Hope springs eternal’ (from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man). Another of her favourites is the poem Leisure by William Henry Davies: “What is this life if, full of care/We have no time to stand and stare.” With life turned upside down and without being able to plan ahead with any certainty, it’s become a bit easier to live more mindfully and in the moment– with more time to stand, stare, smell the roses and meditate. Even a few minutes of micro meditation can take you out of your head and back into your heart. The trick, I have found, is to cultivate a practice of gratitude and to trust that there is some grand design behind the current global shake-up.
Lockdown gave me the time, space and single-minded focus to build a freelance practice as a grants specialist. And in a pleasantly organic and synchronistic way, organisations and projects that are close to my heart have found me. At the end of last year I supported five arts and entertainment organisations to win Federal Government grants – such a boost for artists whose livelihoods and performance opportunities have been decimated by COVID. Since then, there’s been youth mental health, environmental education and projects to re-purpose food waste. I feel as if I have found my professional feet and carved out my own niche and signature brand.
As a homebody, lockdown was less challenging for me than some. And that’s where the gratitude came in. Finally, I had time to give my garden more love, and to tackle jobs that had been on my domestic to-do list for years. I didn’t clear out a single cupboard but I did install a Vertical Garden in my courtyard and plant out various cuttings I had collected from friends’ gardens.
I painted my various garage sale and nature strip finds (for non-Australians, this has nothing to do with nudity; the nature strip is the grass verge bordering the pavement where people put out ‘hard rubbish’ to be collected by the Council!). While it’s illegal to pinch things from the hard rubbish, I see it as neighbourhood recycling, and it saves items going to landfill. A win-win. A neighbour, Jill and I, alert each other when we spot see something languishing by the side of the road that is crying out for a good home…
More than ever, I learnt to savour the small things: a cuddle with Bertie, a new green shoot in my garden, the first cup of tea in the morning, cloud formations in the sky, the changing colours of the ocean, the magpies carolling, an engrossing book or fascinating podcast. My home-based staycation over the Christmas holidays was a series of simple savoured moments adding up to quite a feast.
None of us knows what lies ahead. All we can do is to keep caring, keep learning, keep hopeful and keep putting one foot in-front of the other. I’ll leave you with a few lines from Amanda Gorman.
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left with