I’m so excited to play with light this Saturday – literally! From 6-7pm Dec. 17 I’ll be looping double bass harmonies at Winter Solstice Lights in the beautiful Lakewold Gardens. According to artist Samuel Stubblefield, who designed all the lights based on real-time atmospheric data from NASA and NOAA, my music will also interact with the lights, causing changes in color and pattern. So incredible!
As she swims, she senses the strata, towering like giant cliffs around her. It’s feeling rather than seeing, a mind’s-eye of layer upon layer of memory. Built up, piled on and crushed down, like the hundreds of horizontal lines in a cross-section of Blue Mountains sandstone. Memories, like waves, each folded flat into the next but occupying the same swathe of water in which she now swims – the Merewether Baths.
Waves, made into personal geology.
She keeps swimming, lifting, breathing.
She can’t remember that first swim with her father. Was she a toddler, splashing with fat-fingered deliciousness, held aloft by strong hands and an adoring smile? He looked just like Frank Sinatra back then, everyone said so, and certainly the photos don’t lie – but nobody thought to photograph any swimming.
Maybe it was later, on a camping holiday. Or a trip to Lambton Pool, shiny and sweaty and the baby pool a heady mix of chlorine, wee and salt-‘n’-vinegar. Certainly it was Dad not Mum, who never went further than a good book in the shade if possible. Dad, who would throw you high so you splashed deep down, who would make sure you were treading water then duck under and grab your feet with a goggle-eyed grin. Who would breaststroke the entire length of the pool carrying you patiently on his back, like a turtle, and reluctantly climb the waterslide just to keep you company.
Dad, who was 86 with metastatic melanoma and only months to live.
Stroking out to the far diving blocks that stand numbered like solemn white gravestones in a watery cemetery, she lifts herself up over the wavelets to breathe. Every third stroke, just as Dad – a competitive swimmer in high school – had once taught her, with feet paddling three to a stroke. The sets of nine carry her rhythmically down the lane, awash with tidal kelp and sea grass and maybe a jellyfish.
From the beach it’s a picture-perfect pool, backed by coastal cliffs and cut into a broad rock platform like a mermaid’s playground, emerald-green. But her first memories of swimming the Baths – the bottom strata – aren’t so Instagrammable. A cold winter’s morning, with the sea water only marginally warmer than the dreary rain. Scary depths, with who-knows-what lurking beneath if you failed to tread water for three minutes. Endless kickboard laps, bubble-blowing, painful belly-flop dives, jeers. And Mum, waiting patiently up in the car with a hot thermos that still couldn’t take the edge off the shivers.
Stroking along in the cool autumn water, she smiles. Now she lives on the other side of the world, in a place where the emerald saltwater rarely gets above a frigid 13 degrees and most people don’t venture out in it. Every time she comes home, she swims the Baths with Dad, basking in the relative warmth and joking about how tough they are.
Suddenly a surprise wave crashes over the blocks. Her eyes and ears and mouth fill with white water, churning. Gasping, she surfaces, and grins.
“I’d look out if I were you, I talked to a fellow down here once who’d been swept out and over the concrete by a wave like that,” says Dad, in her mind’s ear. Another strata layer, from another era.
But that’s part of the fun – that edgy toggle between danger and delight. The childhood game of waves, further up at the surf beaches, that occasionally ended in a sandy spinning dumping but was mostly filled with dives and whalelike breaches for what-seemed-like hours until a final collapse on the sand with sisters, friends and hot chips.
Dad was always a disparaging wave-jumper.
“It’s not real swimming,” he’d always say, mock-shaking his head, and attempting to ply out some crawlstroke between the flags.
Rightly, they’d ignored this lap-swimmer nonsense and kept jumping until, outnumbered, he gave up and plunged beneath the foam to seize their feet and tip them over.
A weak swimmer, she’d always felt strong with him, even out beyond her depth where the sand bar loomed like a treasure island. He’d always be there to save her.
And he was there, until so very recently. Just two weeks ago, they’d been down to the Baths after a few weeks of bad weather and dubious water quality. The surface shone crystalline, shimmering like the rim of a cloud or some massive scaly beast. A water-dragon, one hundred by fifty metres long.
Ignoring the safe ramp with the railing, he’d worried her a little as he wobbled down the ladder but then. Clean laps, one after another, still outpacing her even at 86. They’d fought the current flowing down from the pumphouse on the seaward side and stared out at the breakers, mesmerized. Wave, then wave, then wave, each unique, each built from the same invisible patterns of physics and gravity and sheer beauty.
She’d adjusted her goggles, pretending not to notice how he needed the rest between laps.
Then he blurted, “Do you want to see my cancers?”
She didn’t, but he raised his left arm anyway and she bobbed under the surface, meeting the bulgy lumps face to face. In the shimmery water they seemed to move, lurching.
She rose up to breathe, and then couldn’t find any words. Just stared into her father’s eyes, pale blue and eternally kind, and felt her own fill with hot, salty tears.
She dives a few layers down, to where they’d all gone swimming – Dad, her two teenagers and herself. They’d talked him into the Newcastle Ocean Baths, which he regarded with a kind of Merewether disdain as being unappealing and difficult to park at, besides.
Today, the pool’s aqua Art Deco curves were gilded with sunset pink and gold. The floodlights had just come on, and only two other swimmers were in there. They’d all moved at slow Grandad-speed down the ramp, and she’d had a flashback to seven summers ago, or was it eight, when her parents had traveled to see them and they’d all gone swimming at a local lake. Dad had impressed everyone on the floating pontoon by diving straight off the three-metre level, and then they’d all sidestroked with chips and lemonade bottles for a pontoon picnic.
Still. They were here now, and they were swimming together, languid laps that echoed the fading light behind the city. Then suddenly Dad had flipped around and splashed her, impish. Mouth filled with saltwater, she’d splashed back, and then they were all horsing around in the water like ten-year-olds at a pool party, kicking and smacking and giggling.
Waiting as ever in the car with a book, Mum just smiled as the silliness flew like water droplets, effervescent then gone.
She swims and, unasked for, another layer rises up from the deep. Dad, in hospital last week, drip-fed morphine and mumbling. His hands clasping hers with paper-thin skin and a loving, comforting finality. The bird-like beep of machines behind silent curtains.
He was out now, the infection tamed, the cancer still spreading. Slowly, he swam back into their world of walking, conversations, endless doctor appointments. They’d sipped coffee and talked about poetry, or prayer (so often the same). Even discovered, deep in a stack – what were the odds? – a poem he’d written years ago about Merewether Baths.
She’d mentioned swimming – offhanded, casually, like someone getting up the nerve to ask for a date.
“That’s a good idea!” said Mum. “Maybe a heated pool? When you’re feeling up to it?”
He’d shaken his head, sighed. Wiped a hand over a creased forehead. Shut his eyes, as if immersed in saltwater without goggles.
She strokes on, slower now. Her left shoulder’s aching, just the way the right one had before the surgery. Osteoarthritis. Manageable, for now. Helped, yet inexorably harmed, by the water’s seductive, buoyant tug.
Like geological strata layers, creating their mountain while simultaneously crushed by its weight.
Tired, she heaves herself out of the algae-edged pool and towels dry. At the next bench is an old man, maybe 70, with the wrinkly tanned skin of a lifelong swimmer. He slips into the water in his blue Speedos and sets off.
She gathers her belongings and heads up to the change-rooms.
Beyond the Baths, a single line of surf break stretches like a ribbon along three golden beaches. With a perfect symmetry it builds, rises, peaks and curls over into a froth of white nothingness.
I have to admit, when Tacoma, WA artist Lynn di Nino asked me to present photos and video of my cliff jumping at her monthly slideshow event Tripod – and suggested I play double bass to go with it – I was a little worried.
Music and cliff jumping have always seemed very different, disconnected things to me, both in my life and in general. And while I’ve performed on bass while speaking simultaneously (“B.B. Wolf,” “Failing”), adding looping improvisation while keeping pace with my own video seemed just a little scary. And completely new.
But I accepted the challenge, screwed up my courage and gave it a try – and discovered a new, better self. Kind of like cliff jumping, really.
I didn’t start out by jumping waterfalls. I didn’t begin brave.
Growing up, I was lucky
in a place surrounded by blue, swimmable water.
Canoe trips, ocean pools
And the dancing delight of endless waves in a city with ten beaches.
We jumped waves, jumped off diving boards
but I stared, heart pounding, at the 10-meter tower
knowing I could never, would never, be that person
who could make that jump.
Swimming wild also meant family
and then came the time when my own little family
wanted to jump off the rock
into the deep, cobalt waters
of Crater Lake.
Icy. And such a long….way….down….(actually, only about 10 feet. But it seemed higher.)
My daughter – 13 – jumped in, toweled off, grabbed her phone to film us.
My son, 11, did a backflip.
Me? I thought about the danger. The cold water. The rocks.
But so many others had jumped it before us, were still out there
Clearly not dead. And clearly, able to save me.
“Come on!” called my son. “You can do it, Mum!”
“Hurry up,” called my daughter.
I took a deep breath – let it out –
Sing, o Music, of water
That swift plunge into a cold embrace;
Sing of air left behind like a faded memory
and the exultant rush of silky fingers
down, down through jade, aqua, emerald, turquoise, sapphire
inside a world of effervescent sparkles.
Sing of that strange light, alien and enticing
and of that eternal moment between the falling and the upward thrust
when your weighted body
into the silence
That’s when it started, this quest for falling.
I was 45 – ridiculously old to be jumping off cliffs with teenagers.
After I summed up all my courage and leapt ten feet
into the Green River Gorge
(after depth checks, of course)
a friend laughed –
“Oh wow, I haven’t done that since I was 15!”
My 15-year-old self shrank a little, then expanded
as she realized her second chance.
Cautious, excited, we explored our world
Found new places to swim, went a little higher.
At a Puget Sound dock
my son flipped off 15 feet, then 20
and coached by a counsellor, I launched off a flying trapeze
into the seductive summer depths of high tide. Me! A flying trapeze!
And me too, stepping off
a 15-foot cliff into the blissful caress of Paradise Pool, west of Sydney.
That was me, too, jumping off the Leavenworth bridge
and off a rope swing in British Columbia
and out of a tree on Orcas Island
and 18 feet into the crystal pool at Whatcom Falls
while my son climbed higher and higher – a 25-foot gainer, a 30-foot double back layout, a 50-foot waterfall, and – then – a 60 foot straight jump
into the eggshell-blue heaven of Canada’s Howe Sound.
Oh, the color! To plunge into aqua, green, gold
a shimmering palette mirroring trees and rocks and sky and
the whole world, hidden deep.
To enter that color
Is to become the world, completely
without words, without time,
simply a part of this wild nature
and painted – for a second – by its brush.
Was I scared?
I was vigilant – we dove every time to check the depth, we did our research –
but every time I feared
that it would go wrong, that we’d be swept away
by tide, current, injury, death.
You think all of this, poised on the edge
beside your 13-year-old son as he launches off a cliff.
And he feels fear, too. They all do
these young men and women, met online
who became our cliff jumping crew,
our safety, guidance, friendship.
They all feel fear. Not my fear,
a middle-aged woman facing down 25 feet,
but their own, stomach-clenching, real.
And yes, people die jumping. I don’t make light of it.
Mostly, they’re inexperienced. Drunk. Or careless.
How can you let your kid do this?
But that’s why I go too.
And if you bring safety checks and support
then when you meet Fear on a cliff-edge
you can stare her down
and make your own decision.
Besides, the hardest part is standing on the edge.
Once you’ve jumped, there’s no going back.
And so it went. We bought wetsuits
found hidden spots, unmarked on maps.
Towering walls of columnar basalt
Canyons of ferny mosses
Red cliffs cracked like giant faces,
and waterfalls, cascading endlessly in fierce power
and misty beauty.
My son was up to 60, 70 feet now, swing-casting off bridges
full-twists, triple backflips, double gainers.
We traveled to Vermont, land of secret quarries,
and I jumped 25 feet
to be the only swimmer in a pool half a mile wide
(until my daughter jumped in too.)
Then 30 feet at a lagoon south of Sydney, emerging
through breathless bubbles into gum-scented air
and the sharp Australian sun.
We jumped into Blue Pool, Oregon, its icy, sapphire depths
still as a fairytale
where water turns heroes into gold
and we ducked three feet
into a snowy stream on Snoqualmie Pass
to usher in the New Year.
Montana bridges in summer sunshine
Rain-drenched winter Washington pools
Sun-filled lakes with rocky climb-outs
Snowy glaciers and pounding salt surf.
Does an eagle feel like this?
To stride, soar, dive
Fluid between elements?
Without wings, I fly; without fins, I swim;
Passing into a world beyond
for the briefest second of eternity
a window, opened
for my soul to breathe the air
of another, wilder existence.
V. HIGHER GROUND
Where does it end? So far
It hasn’t, though I’m getting older.
I’m 50, and have jumped 42 feet into the mighty Columbia River.
I’ve found the courage to leap over the rushing edge
of the Lower Lewis river
some ten feet higher than that long-ago diving tower.
I never thought this would be possible
this version of myself.
While my son tumbles 80, 90, 100 feet with breathtaking grace
I have found my own better self.
In facing fear, I’ve leapt through it.
Surrounded danger with safety.
Discovered that braveness comes from being brave, again and again
whether you’re on a cliff or living a life.
And above all I’ve discovered
that in trying to be the person my kids think I am
It’s like we’re on another planet. No – more like we died and went to some Covid-free heaven where you don’t need masks (mostly), you can hug your friends, share food, eat in cafes and the sun is shining.
But let me start at the beginning.
The day begins with 2:30am school as usual for my son. I’m up by 7:30am, with a fridge full of leftover food to choose from for breakfast. I make Vegemite on toast.
Then it’s down to business for packing. Once we leave, they’ll toss anything left behind into some kind of Hazmat dumpster, so we’re extremely thorough. We end up with one extra suitcase (my sister’s games and books), and no less than four shopping bags full of chips, tea, Tim Tams and enough fruit to power an entire juice bar.
“Do you need a trolley?” says the guard.
“No, no,” we say gaily, and skip down the corridor (well, I skip, anyway) to the elevator.
“It kind of feels like we were only just arriving here,” says my son, trying to describe the out-of-time sensation of these fourteen days.
“While at the same time feeling like forever,” I add, and he nods.
My daughter just looks as us. “It feels like two weeks,” she says flatly, ever the pragmatist.
Then it’s just checking out with the police in the lobby, a friendly wave to the hotel staff (they look bored) and we stagger out into the sunlight to where my sister’s waiting with the car.
Where do I begin with the strangeness of the rest of this day?
To start with, it’s pretty amazing hugging someone that’s not my husband or kids or dogs – haven’t done that in a whole year.
Then there’s discovering an entire road and set of buildings behind the hotel we had no idea existed. We’re gawking at this as we jam the suitcases and fruit into the car, then get another surprise as we cross the road (CROSS the ROAD!!!) to where the Moreton Bay fig tree is waiting patiently in the sun. To my kids’ utter embarrassment and my sister’s amusement, I hug the tree – the trunk astonishes my fingers with its rough grittiness, its warmth.
But the big surprise? There’s a massive building behind the tree! Glass-walled, it’s been hidden behind those dense leafy branches all this time. We stare. I’m sure we look bizarre to the workday commuters who carefully step around us on the pavement, but I feel like the residents of Plato’s cave, suddenly shown a wide world they never knew existed.
The feeling continues as we drive to a nearby café where my nephew works, and where we can enter without a mask (!!!) and sit down inside without fear. (Sydney has had zero locally-acquired Covid-19 cases in over a month, by this point. People are ready to don masks and lockdown as soon as there’s a case or two, but mostly there’s no risk. How has this happened? A combination of an island nation, willing to shut its borders and impose lockdowns and quarantines, and a people willing to make sacrifices to protect each other. A heavenly ethic, indeed.)
Brunch is delicious, and my nephew makes my second latte in two weeks (he also brought me the first one, with a grocery drop-off on Day Four.)
Friends back home in the Pacific Northwest will realize the profound importance of this coffee moment.
As we chat, the kids and I keep shaking our heads in disbelief. Fresh air. Sunlight. Eating out, inside a cafe.
The weirdness just continues as we drive over the Harbor Bridge and north to Newcastle, my hometown where most of my family still lives. We notice the extreme green of the bush, the blue of the sky. The motion. The change.
Once unpacked, we head for the beach. It’s a five-minute walk away, past fragrant pink-and-yellow frangipani (plumeria), and a park full of people smiling, playing tennis, hanging out with friends (no masks, no distancing). The golden sand is warm between my toes, the water balmy on my pale, quarantine-hotel skin. We splash and float in the waves, and it’s as if every worry and fear and dread from the past 12 months is dissolving in that salty blue expanse of happiness.
And then, when we return, Mum and Dad are there. To hug them and not stop, to make silly jokes about how short they seem to my now-lanky son, to look and touch and just be – this is what we have come through so much for, and is possibly the most otherworldly, heavenly experience in this whole bizarre day.
My other nephew and his partner come for dinner, we eat pizza (first time in two weeks!!!) and share food and sit close together under the spreading trees in my sister’s lush garden – things completely impossible at home right now. Overhead the rainbow lorikeets squabble with noisy joy, like impetuous teenagers. I slap mosquitoes and gaze at my family, not quite believing I’m actually here.
For them, of course, it’s all normal. I grew up here myself, visited as often as we could afford, and took it completely for granted. But after a year of restrictions and two weeks of our quarantine cave, I see it for the paradise it is.
My sister and I walk Mum and Dad around the corner back to their apartment, and I’m still reveling in the topsy-turvy balminess of the night. I taste the salt air, smell the sweetness of frangipani and relish the stretch in my legs.
Yes, it’s just Newcastle. Just the ordinary Australian life that I grew up with.
But it’s freedom.
(Note: This day marks the end of my quarantine blog. I may write more on this site in future; feel free to follow if you like.)
For our last day in captivity, things go remarkably like any other day.
Except, of course, that happy little moment where three nurses and two soldiers show up at our door with negative Covid test results, check-out papers for 9:30am tomorrow and green wristbands saying “Tuesday”.
(If we’d tested positive, we’d have started the 14 days all over again. There’s incentive for you.)
The knock at the door comes after a busy quarantine morning of emails, coffee, chatting on the balcony and juggling practice. I run to answer, grabbing my mask and probably overwhelming them with my manic expression. Luckily they’re just testing for Covid-19, not sanity.
We made it! Freedom, freedom, freedom! Just one more day to go, then we join this Australian paradise where you can have dinner with friends, go to work, see a play, sing with others and not spend every moment worrying about sickness and death. Unbelievable.
The three of us do a little wristband dance around the room.
Then we eat pumpkin-feta salad and Tim Tams for lunch – again.
I talk to the kids. As a learning experience, was quarantine useful?
“I found out that even if you’re locked in a room, if you actually have sunshine it helps a lot,” states my son. Fresh from the usual nine-months-of-gray Pacific Northwest winter, we all relate.
“I learned that if you keep a regular routine and get serotonin from regular workouts, that goes a long way,” says my daughter.
Calves and thighs aching from endless pliés, I nod.
As for me, I learned that you can do an effective workout in a surprisingly small space – not to mention that I like getting three meals delivered daily a whole lot more than I should admit to.
Also, that I need to work on my fruit consumption.
Of course, it helped that we’d effectively spent the last 12 months in quarantine, with our home state’s restrictions in the U.S. We could go outside, sure, and buy our own food. But when it came to online school, Zoom socializing and isolating as a family, we were already experts. If you came into hotel quarantine fresh from civilized society (as many Australians have had to do when crossing state lines), it might be a bit of a shock.
And then there’s all the essential life skills I achieved here: juggling, ukulele-playing, bird-training, Tim Tam hoarding, flawless F# major flute scales.
We drift through the afternoon and into a humid twilight. The hotel management delivers one last gift: a massive Kit Kat bar and a sweet handwritten note wishing us all the best. (Must remember to say thank-you as we gallop out of the hotel tomorrow morning.) My son and I achieve circus nirvana by mastering double jump-rope while juggling, and we record a podcast for my daughter’s university prison literature class, the three of us discussing transformative justice in a surreal quarantine moment.
Night falls. I stare out at the Moreton Bay fig where the mynas and currawongs have finally gone to sleep. The branches are huge, dense, mysterious. It’s the kind of tree you could build an entire elf village inside, or a magic house with a slippery-slide inside the trunk.
As I gaze, I think about last night, when I had – as I often do in strange rooms – a claustrophobia attack. Suddenly awake at around 2am, I just couldn’t get enough air, though I could see light through the curtains and told myself I wasn’t shut in. A little desperately, I went out onto the balcony – the late-summer Sydney night was warm, humid, stuffy. I still couldn’t breathe. I felt the panicky feeling of having nowhere else to go to escape.
Then I thought: Had quarantine taught me how to talk my body and mind through this imprisonment? I stared across at the tree, solid and reassuring in the streetlight. As I gazed at that fat, wrinkled trunk, I rooted my own legs down into the balcony floor. My head floated up out of my spine, like the leafy dark green crown of the fig. For a tiny moment I was supremely aware of myself as a giant ecosystem – of my bacteria and mitochondria swimming around my tree-like body. A reassurance spread through me that, like the tree, I could breathe, even in the humid, smoggy air. Breath after bigger breath, I visualized the oxygen that the tree was, right now in the darkness, releasing in one long exhale, surrounding us both with a life-giving halo.
Finally, calmer, I went back inside to try and sleep.
Now, tonight, I stand on the same balcony, as I have for fourteen days and nights. I stare at the same tree. Tomorrow, I’ll get to walk out of the hotel, across that road and touch it. The luxury feels almost incomprehensible. I realize how much just two weeks of comfy voluntary confinement has affected me, and how unimaginably destructive it must be to have a life sentence in an actual prison. I think about transformative justice, but also of how our quarantine has helped keep my family, my country, safe and well.
Then I head back inside to write this final blog post inside the Quarantine Hotel. (Don’t worry, I’ll still write Day 14 tomorrow.)
Outside – as the manager’s note said – the world is waiting for us.
I’m not sure why I decide to put on fancy clothes today – well, a skirt, anyway – but it sets the tone for the whole day. Of course, it’s Sunday, even in quarantine.
Also, all my leggings and T-shirts are in the laundry.
The day starts well enough with coffee, croissants and a Covid test at 8:30am. The nurses show up in full PPE, which is a good thing since the nasal swab makes my poor son splutter, sneeze and cough, eyes streaming from triggered allergies. I think for the umpteenth time how glad I am not to be a nurse. These two gaze with the dispassionate, sympathetic gaze of people who’ve been vaccinated.
The kid attempt to go back to sleep, and I chug away at a hefty grant application.
Then a knock – Lamingtons! How fancy is that?! (Cultural explainer: Lamingtons are a beloved Aussie cake coated in chocolate and coconut. Divine.)
“I suppose you want a photo for the blog,” says my son. How did he guess??
Then there’s another knock, with two packets of Twisties. This is unbelievable.
“They’re basically Fritos,” says my daughter, examining the classic red-and-yellow packets with a critical eye.
“No no no no, they’re WAY superior to Fritos.”
We take our fancy lamington morning tea out to the balcony, watching a gentle parade of Sunday pedestrians in fancy clothes: a long pin-striped navy dress, white cardigans, flowery Indian salwar kameez, a toddler in pale blue hat.
I attempt to attend livestream church but the wifi freezes, so we sight-read some flute/violin duets instead: Brahms, Bach, Loeillet. Fancy stuff.
The tone goes rapidly downhill after lunch. Angry accusations of sniffing while someone else was trying to sleep, lack of sympathy at the allergies causing the sniffing. It escalates into a massive screaming argument. I give up trying to rein it in and try hiding on the balcony. It doesn’t help.
Then there’s a knock at the door – it’s the police. The two officers politely ask what the argument’s about, and I seize the opportunity.
“Hey kids,” I call, relishing the moment. “The police are here. They’d like you to come and explain the argument.”
Shuffling feet, sheepish voices, some hesitant phrases that trail off. “It’s about – “ “Well, he was sniffing loudly – “ “She yelled at me – “ and finally, “It’s basically about people not respecting other people.”
I nod heartily. “Yes, that’s what I think too.”
The officers keep admirably straight faces, and talk seriously to the kids. We’ve got to respect each other, de-escalate, not long to go now, wouldn’t want to be called up for a domestic violence situation, that would mean separation, wouldn’t want to start quarantine all over again, would we?
We shake our heads in unison. No, we wouldn’t. I thank the cops and shut the door.
We go back to the living room, and the silence is golden.
After lunch, some birdsong floats through the balcony door – a series of pure, sweet high Fs. I hum along, pull out my flute to get the pitch. My son laughs.
“That’s so annoying. Getting out your flute.”
“Really,” I say. “I’ll make a note of that.”
“Yes, and you can put it in your blog.”
I’m sure I’ve irritated a lot of people in my musical career, but this is a first – achieving annoyingness simply by unpacking my instrument.
I pull out the ukulele instead and work on a spoof quarantine version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Eyes roll.
Mum and Dad call: They’re loving the ukulele songs. Hah. Dad went for a swim yesterday and is feeling better, so that’s one good thing.
I plug away at the grant application, taking juggling breaks. During one inspired moment we even try out a five-ball two-person routine and manage to get four or five catches – amazing!
My nephew drops off more supplies (chocolate, salt and vinegar chips, hard cider), we chat over the balcony and then launch into a Taylor Swift ballet workout.
It’s surprisingly fun, and I point my toes, feeling fancy again.
We tuck into gnocchi alfredo for dinner, followed by a cider and a family game – all three of us this time. No sniffing or yelling.
One more full day to go – then freedom Tuesday morning, all going well with today’s Covid test. Let’s hope we last.
I found myself in quarantine
I learned to play the ukulele
But you don’t really like my music, do ya?
I learned some chords, the fourth, the fifth,
The minor falls, the major lifts,
And then I started playing “Hallelujah”
The first few days were kind of fun
We had a balcony in the sun
I wrote a blog that seemed like it amused ya,
We played some games, we grew our hair,
We sat out on our balcony chair,
And from our lips there came a Hallelujah
We said our thanks to God above,
We tried to show each other love,
But it’s not easy when your kids outgrew ya
We got annoyed, we had a fight,
Some days we couldn’t see the light
This song was just a broken Hallelujah
Each day felt like the one before
We knew the room, we paced the floor
We did our work, we called you if we knew ya,
We juggled balls, we jumped the rope,
We tried to hang on to our hope
That one day we’d have freedom, hallelujah
Now we’re nearly there at Day Fourteen
We’ve all survived the quarantine
I’ve told the truth, I wouldn’t try to fool ya,
We have a Covid test to clear
And then we’ll walk right out of here
And sing aloud a grateful hallelujah!
(With apologies to Leonard Cohen, who never had to go through hotel quarantine.)
Just for once, I sleep in. When I wake up, my son’s finished class and it’s a sunny Saturday morning outside. Over coffee I have a balcony phone chat with my old school friend Claire while she watches her son’s cricket match. She lives just outside of Sydney, and honestly we could have been chatting on the phone every weekend of last year but somehow we never thought to, or we just seemed too far away. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but if people are out of sight, they’re often out of mind. It’s a huge consequence of pandemic lockdown that we’re going to have to come to grips with fairly soon.
We’re in the middle of a deep discussion about mental health and prison reform when a myna bird hops up, just inches from my bare right foot. I interrupt my own profound statement to squeal quietly. Clearly, quarantine’s having a bad effect on my attention span.
Claire laughs. We hang up to attend our respective Saturday-morning family routines.
The big difference is that mine’s in socially-isolated lockdown but hey – we’re getting kind of used to it by now.
What I DO miss is walking. I start a mile, looping around the apartment in the track I measured out last week through the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room. Looking for entertainment, my son juggles along. I push past him, enjoying the novel feeling of actually stretching out my hip flexors, and he starts ambushing me again, jumping out from behind doors or tossing balls into my path to make us both giggle.
At exactly noon we sit in perfect silence for 15 minutes while my daughter does a Zoom job interview. Even in quarantine, she looks more professional than I’ve ever managed to (well, her top half, anyway).
Then I get back to my walk, checking off every ten loops to keep track. I think of a film I once saw about a guy who wanted to walk the Camino di Santiago, but was stopped by aggressive cancer. He walked the length around his backyard instead, in between treatments, visualizing each section of the Camino.
I stride around the apartment, trying to visualize the beach walk near where my parents live. It’s difficult. But eventually the scene kicks in. I feel calmer, react less to distractions of kids, traffic, thoughts.
“I need to pee,” says my daughter firmly, and locks me out of the bathroom. I make a few more loops to the front door and back, but it’s not quite the same. I stop for lunch.
The weekend just gets more laid-back. Feeling creative, I take some artsy photos through the spyhole of the front door (that magical porthole) and head out to the verandah for tea, jotting down a couple more birdcalls – maybe I’ll write a flute piece with them. The fig tree is swaying deliciously in the wind like a dancer. I notice for the first time how our hotel building reflects in a warped, Gaudi way in the shiny glass of the building opposite.
Is my brain latching onto art and music as a coping mechanism? I’m deep into a grant application for a festival I started last December, and a key part of it is how light art brings joy and peace during dark times. Claire’s actually an expert in this field, and has sent me a stack of academic research on the subject of arts improving mental health.
Or maybe I’m just chilling out because it’s the weekend. I pick up the ukulele and strum a couple of songs, hoping to lure another bird. My son improvises picks out of a folded Post-it and a bread bag tie and works at the chords of “Riptide.”
The afternoon passes in a happy peacefulness. We work at assignments, then hit the dance floor with an instructor who combines hip hop moves with ballet grace. I have neither but it’s a lot of fun, and I think I’ve gotten fitter over the ten days. Quarantine hotel as a fitness regime! Maybe I should suggest it to the manager.
Breakfast for dinner again (I love weekends) and a family movie. Two of us, anyway – that’s not bad.
Are we all just getting used to this? Where’s the drama? It’s a little worrying how anything can start to feel normal, even voluntary imprisonment. I suddenly understand, just a little, that alleged captive mentality where even if you’re offered freedom, you’d rather stay inside where it’s familiar.
Two more full days to go, then freedom on Tuesday morning…not a moment too soon.
The days are getting longer, with less substance, a kind of stretching blank miasma. Or an expanse of cloudy water, with no visible edge or shore.
We work at our tasks in the morning, my son starting at 2:30am and my daughter at 5am with a midterm exam.
I wake at 4am with a nosebleed, which kind of sets the tone for the whole day.
The monotony is broken somewhat with a mid-morning delivery of caramel Tim Tams – the management? the caterers? At this point I’m almost beyond caring – and then lunch. It’s pho, something we’ve all been missing, rich and tangy.
After lunch my daughter starts a physics lab on Zoom – we’re under strict instructions to be quiet. So of course my son starts up some wall juggling in the bedroom: thwump, thwump, thwump.
Being a responsible parent, of course I go and join in. He’s throwing against the bathroom door, and I just can’t resist: I lurk on the other side, wait til he’s in a throwing rhythm, then pull the door swiftly open.
The look on his face as the ball flies past my head into the bathroom is priceless. We both giggle, and do it again, and again, cackling hysterically. I shut the toilet lid after a couple of near misses, then comes a sharp call from the living room: “Shut up!”
We exchange glances. Then we move into the bedroom and he teaches me to wall-juggle.
The afternoon passes in a bleary fog. I know I need to keep doing things to stop myself sinking into an abyss of depression, so I battle some more with work and the wifi, then strum some tunes on the ukulele. (The lab is over; we’re allowed to make noise now.)
I learn E major (it’s hard), delighted I can now play Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
The reaction from my son is immediate and fierce.
“No. Please don’t play that one.”
Undaunted, I launch into “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and –
“No, don’t play that one either. You learn all these chords and you only use, what, three of them in those stupid songs.”
“Well, what do you want me to play?”
My son grabs the ukulele, picks out A minor, G and C, and hums a tune. I have no idea what it is. He fiddles a bit on YouTube, then produces the familiar strains of “Riptide.”
It’s easy enough – just three chords. I start it up, humming the chorus until my daughter strides in with a menacing look.
“Don’t you dare play that song. Just don’t.”
I give up. I’ll wait until it’s cool enough on the balcony – maybe the birds will appreciate my music.
“I just want to be out of here,” says my daughter restlessly, and I couldn’t agree more.
We workout, three intense sets after our break day. I can’t help liking the instructor, who’s lean and boppy and super-positive in California-dancer-yogi way. As she shimmies and shakes she dispenses earnest advice that seems to apply both to her complex moves and life in general.
“Remember, you don’t always need to be in control,” she says, executing a perfect hip-circle with flamenco arms. “When you try to control everything, you don’t enjoy anything. Sometimes just have to let go and trust yourself.”
Incredible. She’s just summed up my entire life including the last 10 days of quarantine. Out of the mouths of YouTube babes, etc. I listen avidly for more, doing my best to squat, kick and flick my arms all at once without falling over.
“Come on!” she exhorts, flicking out her hands side to side with a beatific smile. “Just shake out all that negativity, you don’t need it anymore!”
I shake with enthusiasm, whacking my son’s face as he dives after the juggling balls and back-kicking him with a lunge as he weaves in and out in a silly parody of the moves.
It’s all kind of fun, but my body’s getting more and more achy from the hard bed, the inactivity, the bad dreams, the worry. After the workout I do some yoga, and start crying during a tough straddle stretch. It just hurts so much, and this situation is so stressful.
I think about Dad, who’s going through a spinal MRI today – it’s an extra scan to figure out what’s causing him all the severe leg pain that’s been getting worse for a year or so now. The oncologist wonders if it’s the cancer, not just sciatica.
I lean forward, my hips aching from a year of working from home, and think about pain, and worry, and swimming. When I first learned to swim it took me a long time to get the hang of it. I would work my arms like mad and still keep sinking. Floating took even longer, that subtle art of just being, of trusting, allowing yourself to merge with the unpredictable rocking surface of the water. Of trusting that you’ll live, not drown.
I love swimming now, being in the ocean or lakes or rivers, but there’s always that tension – you have to keep moving or you’ll sink. Unless you flip over, give up control, trust.
Dad calls to let me know he’s doing okay after the scan. I ask if he’s gone swimming lately – he’s a lifelong swimmer, competitive in school and still able, at 86, with terminal cancer, to get through a kilometer faster than I can at the local ocean baths.
He hasn’t been this week – too rainy and windy.
Dinner arrives. It’s delicious: Triple Mushroom Ravioli with Heirloom Carrots, Herb Velouté and Herbs, according to the little slip of paper inside the bag. I have a civilized glass of wine with my daughter, who’s thrilled that, being 18, she’s legally allowed to drink in this country. Then we wander out to the balcony to admire the giant fruit bats wheeling in jagged arcs around us in the dusk, before cuddling up for a movie.
Ten days down, four to go. I’m swimming as hard as I can, keeping busy, churning my arms – but I still feel like I’m sinking into this murky water, enveloped in fog, with no edge in sight.
I take a breath, trying to float. Then another. And another.
Another early morning, this time after a rather disturbing nightmare about leaving our dogs only to have one get critically injured. I text my husband to make sure he’s filling up their water bowl. And watering the plants. Then I lie awake feeling claustrophobic – something I’d been worried about since I first heard about hotel quarantine.
By daylight, though, things look better. My husband texts back – he got his first vaccine dose! And yes, he’s watering both dogs and plants. Cheered up, I make coffee and attack some festival paperwork.
Then it happens. I realize what I’ve been determinedly avoiding all along – but it takes the kids to point it out to me.
“I’m so bored,” says my daughter from the sofa bed.
“So incredibly bored,” says my son, staring at his phone with glassy eyes.
I show impressive parental restraint and suggest nothing, waiting for them to figure out a solution. My daughter suggests some badminton, and they have a few hits. I keep typing, dodging the occasional shuttlecock and pretending to myself I’m not actually bored solid.
There’s a knock – lunch. And more Tim Tams!!! Six of them this time, so either the caterers’ math is improving or they are just feeling more benevolent.
The main course is pie. It’s not the traditional Aussie meat but a veggie sausage version for us vegetarians. But it looks just the same, especially when I decorate it with a tomato sauce (ketchup) face. Then I style it for an Instagram food pic, and do the same with the stack of Tim Tams.
Did I mention I was bored?
Inspired by the pie and my photographic creativity, I tell the kids they have to listen, and I launch into the song Dad always used to sing:
“Meat pies and tomato sauce/Same thing for the second course/From Perth to Sydney we all endorse/Meat pies and tomato sauce!”
A classic gem, then and now.
My daughter rolls her eyes, probably in the same way I used to do to Dad. Then she critiques my pie-face.
Just wait. I’ll have my ukulele soon, and then they’ll be impressed.
“You’re regressing, you know that?” asks my daughter as she washes up her plate. “Besides, the pie tastes terrible.”
My son starts grinning and laughing maniacally. I raise my eyebrows.
“I’m just going insane,” he says casually.
“Do you want to play a game?” I offer, gesturing to the suitcase full of Scrabble and Boggle. “To pass the time?”
“No. I’ll just be bored.”
Ohh-kay. I go back to eating my pie. It’s delicious, actually.
I pretend to work some more. The kids scroll their phones in a stupefaction of boredom. Nothing changes.
Then – another knock at the door! I jump up, excited. Maybe it’s my ukulele!
Yep, a massive Amazon box, big enough for several ukuleles plus a Fijian rugby player or two. (see Day Eight). Like a kid at Christmas, I drag it in, babbling to the kids.
They stare up with dread in their eyes.
“Please don’t,” says my daughter. “I have a Zoom.”
Quietly, I unpack, find the tuner, explore the strings. I’m a former professional musician on double bass, piano and organ, and apart from the flute I also play some guitar and cello for fun.
But hey, this is kind of new! Every chord is different. I spend ten minutes studying them on ukulelebuddy.com, then head out to the balcony where the sun and Sydney humidity are creating a Hawaiian microclimate.
I kick back and play Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s classic version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” ticking off a longtime aspiration. Then a standard I-VI-IV-V progression: “Blue Moon,” or maybe “Stand by Me.” Then I launch into a spoof version I wrote of “Heartbreak Hotel,” working the sweet little instrument and my tiny choir voice into something remotely bluesy-sounding. I’m on a roll.
“That’s so embarrassing,” comes the critique, brutally honest as always.
I’m getting sunburned, so I move inside and keep jamming.
My son interrupts my fantasies of ukulele world domination by grabbing the instrument and plonking on the sofa next to me.
“Do you want me to show you some chords?” I ask.
“No,” he says, floundering around. He strikes a jagged tritone.
“That’s not a chord,” I say, ever the encouraging teacher. He moves up a couple of frets.
“That’s not one either.”
Finally he agrees to learn C and A minor (the easiest), followed by F and then G, with three cramped fingers straddling the strings.
“That’s so hard,” he complains.
I smile, thinking of all the crazy physical stunts this guy can do: double backflips, twisting front flip dives, skateboard tricks, handbalances on stacked chairs. Not to mention the juggling. He can also ride a unicycle, play jazz drums and tenor saxophone, edit films and scuba dive.
My daughter, meanwhile, studies quantum physics and eats violin concertos for lunch. Who needs a ukulele?
“You just have to practice,” I offer, lamely.
“Nah, it’s so out of tune.” He hands me the ukulele and leaves. I tune the strings.
Then the juggling balls and jump rope arrive!
Within minutes, my son has perfected his three-ball routine and is working at wall-rebounds. He patiently teaches me, and I actually get about ten three-ball catches.
Then he’s hitting double-under jump rope personal bests before running a mile around the apartment.
“This was a good present,” he says.
We cobble together dinner from our copious leftovers – nobody is particularly interested in tonight’s veggie tray – and I head out into the twilight to play some flute with the birds. I remember today’s phone call with Mum, chatting about little things while Dad played jazz tunes in the background. I’m looking forward to making music with him.
When I stop for breath, I hear voices inside.
“’Agonized moans…the hotel wifi has struck again.’ What on earth?”
“Those weren’t moans. Where is she quarantining? None of this stuff is happening here.”
“I couldn’t even think of things like this to exaggerate.”
I walk inside. They keep going.
“Look at this! ‘Three good qualities about my daughter: Has no problem projecting her voice.’”
“Well, what would you rather I say about you?”
“How about I washed your dishes when you left food on them? Twice?”
“Okay, I’ll put that in there.”
They complain a bit more about the blog – and fair enough. They didn’t ask to have their quarantine life on display. I agree to tone it down, and we all settle down for the night.
At least it’s not boring anymore.
“Quarantine Hotel” (Lyrics: Rosemary Ponnekanti. Music: Elvis Presley)
Well, since we came to Australia
We found a new place to dwell
It’s down the end of Covid Street
At the Quarantine Hotel
Where it gets, it gets so boring, baby,
It gets so boring, it gets so boring I could die.
They get you from the airport
And they take you to your room
And then they take away the key
And leave you in the gloom
Where it’s so, where it’s so boring, baby,
It’s just so boring, where it’s so boring you could die.
Well you never see the bellhop
And you never see the cook
They leave your dinner at the door
Without a second look,
And so it’s, it’s crazy boring, baby,
So crazy boring, it’s just so boring you could die.
Well everyone takes care of you
At the Hotel Quarantine
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave
And it’s all because of Covid, baby,
All because of Covid,
‘Cos if you get Covid —— you could die.
(With apologies to Elvis and The Eagles, who probably never had to go through this.)
It’s another 4:30am start. My son has a calculus quiz at 6am, so I head out to balcony to write down some of the morning birdsong. Then I hear agonized moans from inside: the hotel wifi has struck again, refusing to upload his final answers before the test times out. I hurry inside and whip out my phone to email them to the teacher, along with the usual pathetic plea. My son joins his next class, only to get kicked off the wifi repeatedly. I retreat to the balcony.
The challenge is on. I join the Hotel Quarantine Australia Facebook group (11.9k members and counting) in search of fellow inmates here with balconies. Maybe we can all get together and play a symphony or something.
The top post is from some poor mother of a seven-month-old who, despite testing negative, has just been told she has an extra five days of quarantine because someone on her flight tested positive.
Now I’m worried. On the plus side, at least we’re not one of the 40,000 Australians who are still stuck overseas.
And our food does seem to be better than everyone else’s in the group.
Then it gets even better. Just as I finish up my 9am Zoom there’s a knock at the door. It’s another gift from the manager – Aussie lollies! (That’s candy, for all my American friends out there.) Big packs of Fantales (caramels) and Freckles (chocolate with sprinkles), and a sweet little card bearing the encouraging message “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!”
(Cultural explainer: This is a spoof on the traditional Aussie sports cheer, which usually ends “Oi! Oi! Oi!”)
I can’t help it – I smile in sheer delight. Freckles were my favorite sweet to buy at the local milk bar (corner store) when I was a kid in Newcastle in the 1970s. They cost 2c each, which meant I could get quite a few with my weekly pocket-money (allowance) of 20c. Pretty sure the manager doesn’t know this important piece of history, but it’s a really nice gesture to homesick Australians who’ve made it as far as this hotel.
I pop a Freckle into my mouth just as an argument is blooming in the bedroom.
“Wear headphones! We don’t want to hear your stupid class.”
“My earbuds need charging and I HAVE to be here. I shut the door.”
“We can still hear you! Why do the rules not apply to you?”
“You can wear my headphones,” I offer.
“I don’t want to wear your headphones, they hurt my head. Just SHUT THE DOOR!”
We shut the door.
I go back to reading the news; there’s another story about coping with stress.
Tip #1: Make a list of three good qualities in another person.
Ohhhh-kay. How about –
Is always willing to speak their mind.
No problem projecting their voice.
I hesitate. Then I add, to tell the whole story –
3. Generously helps brother with calculus.
Tip #2: Make a list of 10 achievements you’re proud of. It could be something small, adds the author, like making it to gym class.
Hmm. That’s harder. I chew thoughtfully on another Freckle.
Did not yawn during my 4:30am Zoom.
Nobly got off the wifi when asked.
Changed out of pajamas before lunchtime.
Did not yell when my headphones were rejected.
Took at least ten minutes to eat all the Freckles.
I decide to leave the other five for later and look at Tip #3: Try new things.
Ummm…I glance over at the juggling sock balls, untouched since yesterday. I look at a Powerpoint I’ve been procrastinating – it’s new, technically, but I don’t think that’s quite what they meant.
Then I open my email to discover a surprise gift from a very thoughtful friend: $100 to spend on a quarantine cheer-up item! I start scrolling through the Quarantine Hotel Facebook group to see what other people are doing for fun and there’s a woman on her balcony strumming a ukulele.
I glance at my kids. I search Amazon. I glance up again.
“Hey, you guys,” I begin, but I don’t get far.
“Ukuleles are the most annoying instrument ever,” says my daughter, a violinist.
My son (a drummer) just shrugs. Ok, maybe I’ll finish that tip later, too.
Tip #4 is the final piece of advice, particularly poignant coming from the author who is dealing with her husband’s sudden cancer: “Live in the moment.”
It’s tough, especially when there’s absolutely nothing happening in the moment. Or the next. Or the next.
When they knock at the door for lunch, we scramble around in excitement, then slide back to our screens.
Another balcony flute session, and finally my scales are paying off. I whip through them, enticing a myna bird to the railing below, when suddenly I hear voices close by. And they’re not my kids. A little shocked, I look around, lean over the balcony to see next door. Nothing. Then I twist into a backbend and stare upwards. On the balcony above are a dad and his two little girls. I think they’re as surprised as I am, but we quickly recover and grin happily.
“We were out here every day looking for the busker,” says the dad, gesturing to the street. “And it was you!”
“Do you mind?” I say, remembering those high, piercing F-sharps. “I can stop if it bothers you.”
“Oh no, don’t stop!” they all say in lilting Pacific Islander accents. “We love it! It’s beautiful.”
I play through more Bach, Telemann and Massenet, watching for birds and living in the moment.
The balcony’s getting hotter, so I head inside. Mum calls, and I coax Dad through a conversation about flute music. He’s in pain and super-tired after yesterday’s scans, and has spent most of the day in bed.
“You know, Dad’s really liking your blog!” Mum says in a cheerful tone. “His hearing is so unpredictable that I think he may be missing a lot of our phone conversations, and this helps him catch up with what you are going through. He really loved that flute video yesterday.”
I’m suddenly really glad I put in all that work with the phone and the ironing board set-up. I think of the two little girls upstairs with their dad, and I remember when I taught my Dad to play the flute himself. I was 17 and he was 53. He’d hated learning violin as a boy, and hadn’t really played anything else since except a little mandolin.
I can’t remember whose idea it was for me to teach him the flute, but he worked at it and it led him into a whole new world of solos, occasional duets with me and the very real ministry of accompanying worship – sometimes while also acting as priest.
My daughter and I make yet another cup of tea (I’ve lost count) and potter around, lazy in the sunshine. We all work out, living in the moment with silly Disney dance moves and a game of hotel-room badminton before dinner.
Then I make a decision. With a covert glance at my roommates, I open up Amazon and use my friend’s gift to buy a jump rope, actual juggling balls and a ukulele. I reckon that’ll hit tips 2, 3 and 4 all at once.