On 15 March I met up with a group of ex-colleagues. The girls decided on a potluck at Leigh’s new place in Craighall. But Google Maps took me to the house directly opposite and I was buzzed in by accident.
I wave at a woman standing at the top of the long, paved driveway.
“Hello!” I say jauntily as I get out of my car.
I do not know the lady; her head is cocked to one side.
“I’m here for Leigh’s thing,” I announce, with a hint of trepidation.
“Leigh? I don’t know a Leigh,” the strange lady responds.
Another awkward pause.
“Um,” I stall.
I panic-conjure names associated with Leigh: her boyfriend. And what’s the name of that guy who house-shares with them, the lawyer? It’s like Neil but weird…
“Martin,” I blurt.
The woman shakes her head.
“Er, Neil, Niels.”
“Maybe you’re meant to be across the road?”. She says ‘across the road’ at an increased volume. Her pointed finger shoos me back towards the bottom of the driveway.
“Didn’t they have a party last night?” calls out a younger woman. She traverses the northen suburbs lawn in heels, a perilous journey that leaves stabbed grass-bits in its murderous wake. It’s midday and her eyes narrow and squint when I finally come into her line of sight.
I’m clearly at the wrong place. I apologise to both women and reverse my Suzuki Celerio in an inelegant zig-zag, back down the strangers’ never-ending driveway, and into the correct one.
The girls are all in the kitchen: a tightly packed cacophany of laughs, hellos and “Oh my word I missed you!” shrieks. There are many hugs and a couple of elbow-bumps. It was the heady, early days of the coronavirus.
The girls’ meet-up was to be my last social engagement: 12 days later the country was in lockdown.
It’s been a strange month.
Some days I watch a pair of mossies carefully build a nest in a tree; other days I think about that article I read, the one about 37 year olds having strokes when they come down with Covid-19.
Sometimes in the late afternoons I do tai chi on the patio, while the Chinese girl in the unit across dutifully practises the piano.
Some evenings I watch eNCA and think about mass starvation; other nights I look up at the new moon crescent and remember that the Pakistani family next to us has already started Ramadan.
In lockdown, “we’re dwelling in the basement of Maslow’s pyramid”
In Maslow’s Heirachry of Needs, self-actualisation is at the top of the pyramid, while food, water and security are near the base.
If you were hoping to use this ‘time off’ for more evolved things like writing novels and getting into meditation, forget it. We are using our ever-buffering mental bandwidth on more base thoughts, like job security and how to get hold of black-market cigarettes.
I recently saw a viral post on Facebook explaining our current Maslow bottom situation. American nurse, Rachel Rody, begins her post with:
“Everybody! Seriously. Stop. And breathe. If you’re feeling adrift, there’s a reason.”
She goes on to theorise that the reason has to do with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – that we’re “dwelling in the basement of Maslow’s pyramid”, and only once our basic needs are met do we move from one level to the next.
“How in the heck do you think you’re going to kick ass at the highest levels when we can’t even find toilet paper for Pete’s sake?” laments Nurse Rachel.
I’m fortunately not at a basic level of survival; I’m living a suburban lockdown life. But maybe my level of safety and security isn’t as stable as it should be – I have a roof over my head, yet job security is increasingly precarious. Not to mention those small details like a collapsing global economy and an invisible virus.
Because I’m not quite sorted on the safety and security level, the rest of the levels are humming in the background, like an Eskom sub-station that’s about to blow. I’m not exercising much, I binge-watched Tiger King in one go, and I’m certainly not taking up knitting. As Nurse Rachel says, we’re all adrift here, and we need to give ourselves a freaking break.
My tiny garden is revolutionary
I have a very small townhouse garden. It’s a nano garden. But it’s filled with my partner’s bonsais (and a few of mine), as well as various edible plants that I like referring to as “my crops” (even though it consists of two small brinjal plants, lots of corriander, a few jam tomato seedlings, some herbs, and three chilli plants).
I’m no gardening expert – I wing it when it comes to sowing seeds. I just randomly gooi them, and it’s always a pleasant surprise to see what actually survives. But I love spending time on my own in the nano garden; it calms me and re-calibrates me. Without these few square metres of calm – and not being allowed to go on my much-needed walks in nature or attend tai chi classes – I’d be seriously wonky.
Growing things I can eat has a special kind of reward: I get a huge sense of accomplishment if I can harvest a seed from a plant, plant it in the ground, watch it grow, and eat it. Which is why this article, entitled Why I Stopped Protesting and Started a Garden, resonated so much with me (thanks Kate Ribet). John Halstead, an enviromental activist, writes how he became disillusioned with his activism; how he felt powerless when it came to big issues like climate change.
So he decided to start his own garden instead.
“We have lost the connection to the earth,” he writes. “Not the planet Earth with a capital “E”, but the earth beneath our feet, the place where we are.” He quotes Eric Demore, author of A Palliative Approach to the End of the World, who writes that the Earth resembles a patient with an untreatable cancer – industrial capitalism.
But instead of aggressively focusing on the global, we need to look local. “It means comforting my immediate world, my school, my street, the ravine behind my house,” writes Halstead.
Or, my nano garden.
“There’s something revolutionary about growing your own food,” continues Halstead. “To tend a garden, to learn to be humble, to use your skills locally rather than globally: none of this will ‘save the world’, none of it is easy to rally large groups of people behind, none of it makes a good slogan. And yet, it has an impact.”
Some photos of “my crops”:
Lockdown is a safe, but dangerous place
As many of you know, I’m an introvert. While we need to be alone to recharge, we need limited one-on-one socialising too, otherwise we get a bit unhinged. That means lockdown is messing with us: on the one hand, it’s amazing to have a legitimate reason not to leave the house, but on the other, you know you have a problem when you need to be reminded that it’s over a week since you walked out the front door (true story).
I’m an only child, so I have no problem being on my own for long stretches of time. I’m happy to entertain myself with my own jokes, have protracted arguments with people in my head, and dance as if, literally, no one is watching. Plus, home is safe and COVID free; it’s carnage out there, beyond the complex’s automatic gates.
It’s dangerous to think like this. Rather, I need to be able to see possibilities beyond lockdown, otherwise it’s a fine line between “responsible self-isolation” and “insane hermit”.
I recently watched an Instagram live Q&A session with Seth Godin. It was entitled “A riff on becoming the person you need to become.” He pointed out that most adults have lost a job before, or experienced a death, or had serious health problems. The difference this time round is that everyone else is going through the same thing at the same time, so it’s amplified. Which is a big reason why we’re all feeling so overwhelmed.
He also said that this is the moment to start planning for who you’re about to become. We need to be able to see possibilities – if we don’t, we’re screwed.
“There’s a window of time for you to make a choice to become someone else a few months from now,” he said. “This is the time.”
We’re stumbling around in Maslow’s creepy pyramid basement. We’re in the dark with no torch, trying to figure out where the hell we are, and where we want to be going. Maybe this pandemic will cause our priorities to shift and we’ll become different people in a few months’ time. Or maybe we’ll still be stuck in that basement, finding our way by touching its dank walls.
I’m hoping for the former.