Categories
Musings

No Longer Smug in South Australia

Meredith Stephens gives a first person account of how the pandemic free South Australia is faring balancing fears

Not only does Australia feel geographically isolated, South Australia feels isolated within Australia. Thanks to this isolation we somehow feel immune to the pandemic and enjoy months of zero cases. We look at the evening news aghast as cases soar in Europe and America. Finally, our neighbouring state Victoria gets the numbers under control, and travel between the states becomes possible. Alex has been looking forward to the borders with Tasmania opening so he can sail there from Adelaide and circumnavigate the island. First, he will sail to the historic town of Robe in the south-east of the state, and from there he will sail to Tasmania, weather permitting. He enjoys the extensive preparation, ordering a new inflatable life raft, a new dinghy, a new chart plotter, and installing a wind turbine. He has the standing rigging replaced too.

I want to sail with Alex but can’t because I’m teaching online. I wouldn’t be able to readily access the internet at sea due to the slow satellite connection. I ask Alex to prepare one of his T-shirts for me to take to bed in his absence. He wears the same T-shirt for several days in order to permeate it with his scent.

Suddenly there is news of a six-day lockdown. We have been spared lockdowns to date as we have smugly watched television news of excruciating lockdowns elsewhere. We have until midnight to attend to immediate business. The Chief Medical Officer appears on television and tells us we must decide where we will stay for the next six days. I opt to stay with my ailing mother and take Alex’s T-shirt with me to comfort myself.

I part from Alex and dutifully head to my mother’s home. After making her dinner and cups of tea, I accompany her to her bed, and make sure she takes her medicines. I heat her wheat bags to place behind her neck and on her toes. I watch some television to distract myself, and then exchange texts with Alex. Next, I have to face the night away from him. I don his T-shirt and hope his scent will soothe me to sleep, but it’s no substitute. I wake up with pain throbbing in my right temple and shooting up the right side of my neck. I touch my temple and feel the familiar dilated vein.

I must teach two classes online. I want to cancel because of my migraine, but if I do so I must make up the classes, so I persist with the lessons. The bright light of the screen pierces my eyes, but I find relief when I usher the students into breakout rooms and lie down for five minutes each time they interact with one another.

I search the house for pain relief. I beg Mum for some of her prescribed opiate tablets. She only has two left and permits me to have a quarter of one which she has cut out with the tablet cutter. Then the pain intensifies. I cannot find any aspirin but manage to find some Panadol from an expired blister pack. This gives me no relief. I am not sure I could get a doctor’s appointment at such short notice. Going to the emergency room would be counterproductive during a pandemic. I resolve to go to my daughter’s house. I know that she has two left-over prescribed opiate tablets. I determine to make the long drive despite the injunction not to leave the house. I go into Mum’s room to explain, but she is sleeping. So I leave a note on her bedside table. I leave my laptop there because I will be back in the evening.

I venture onto the deserted main roads. Will I be stopped and questioned by the police? After twenty minutes of driving, I see ten police cars on the opposite side of the main road, stopping drivers. I resolve not to take that route when I return to Mum’s. When I arrive at my daughter’s house, there is a text from Mum:

“Where are you? Are you okay? I am worried about you. I heard you leave.”

“I left a note by your bedside table. Didn’t you see it?”

“No. I missed it.”

“I’ll come back tonight.”

“No, Darling. I’ll be okay for the night. It’s too dangerous for you to drive in your condition.”

“Okay then. I’ll pop back tomorrow morning in time to Zoom my classes.”

Then my sister Rebecca texts me and asks after Mum. I explain that I have had to leave her in search of pain relief. I continue that I am worried about having left the house, but then my other sister Jemima forwards me a government message from social media saying that you may leave the house to care for an infirm relative or friend. Now I can consider my daughter’s house to be my base, and my trip to Mum’s to be legitimate. Rebecca and Jemima offer to take turns to stay with Mum until I recover.

I retrieve one of the prescribed opiate tablets at my daughter’s house, but the pain persists until the morning. I telephone the local clinic and make a telehealth appointment. The doctor calls me back at the appointed time and texts me a script.

Alex texts me asking how I am, and I send him the government message indicating that movement to care for someone who is unwell is legitimate. He offers to visit me and pick up the medicine on the way. My daughter shows me how to forward the script to him on my phone. Alex receives it and promises to come. I absorb his resonant voice, gentle tone, and the calm in his measured and carefully articulated speech. The tension eases and somehow, I find myself explaining to him that I am finally without pain.

Alex arrives at my door with my prescription tablets, but by now the pain has subsided. Knowing that I have left my laptop at Mum’s, he has brought me one of his. Not only that, he has brought South Australian yellowfish tuna which we can eat as sashimi, oysters, and some salmon. We sit down together while he explains to me how to use the Chromebook laptop, but rather than fixing my eyes on the screen I fix them on him, and once again imbibe his scent. We enjoy each other’s company for an hour before Alex has to return home.

Then my daughter informs us that the lockdown has been shortened. It appears that there was a misunderstanding during one of the contact tracing interviews and that the lockdown period will be reduced to three days. Travel within the state will be permitted.

Alex is relieved that at least he will not have to forego sailing, even though the circumnavigation of Tasmania will have to wait. Instead, he will sail into Spencer Gulf, within the state. The ocean is beckoning him, and he is grateful that he can now heed her call. The months of planning equipment, meals, and reading material will have paid off; he can resume his position at the helm, catch fish and squid for his meals, make use of his instinctive sense of wind direction, and be free to move or to stay according to whim, without a single care for COVID.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist in Japan. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Blue Nib, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ MagazineReading in a Foreign Languageand in chapters in anthologies entitled What’s Cooking Mom? Narratives about Food and Family, The Migrant Maternal: “Birthing” New Lives Abroad, and Twenty-First Century Friendshipall published by Demeter Press, Canada.

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Categories
Musings

When your Child Becomes a Vegan

By Meredith Stephens

“Stop cooking meat! I can smell it all the way up here,” my younger daughter Annika upbraided me from her upstairs bedroom.

I had made a rare purchase of mincemeat as part of a packet of ingredients to be assembled for the evening meal. Choices were so limited when you had a vegan in the family. I had almost given up buying meat and chicken, but persisted in buying eggs, fish and dairy. Eventually I found words to describe myself which I could use to feel virtuous, such as a ‘pescatarian’ – a fish eating vegetarian, and ‘flexitarian’ – a vegetarian when it was convenient. Annika didn’t mind if I made vegetarian dishes, but wouldn’t partake unless they were vegan.

“It’s okay for you to be vegan,” I retorted. “But you don’t have to impose your values on the rest of us. You don’t always conform to my values either.”                                                                                                                                                        

“Like what?” she asked.

“I’m not getting into that now. It’s okay for you not to eat meat but you can’t force the rest of us to give it up too,” I repeated.

I descended the stairs to the kitchen and took in the unusual smell of cooking meat, which has been absent from our kitchen for a couple of years. Then I bravely assembled the meal, spreading out the wrap, adding the mince mixture and topping it off with some tzatziki (a Greek yogurt sauce. I folded the wrap and sat down to eat it with my trusted Labrador Tia in front of me. Tia fixed her eyes on me unwaveringly and pricked up her ears. It was my habit to share all my meals and snacks with her.

When we had bought her at the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) I had asked the vet whether it was okay to give her human food. He asked whether I meant sharing my toast with her in the morning. When I nodded he affirmed, “Of course!” From that moment I considered myself to have official approval to share any healthy food with Tia. If I were eating an apple, I would bite off one bit for her and one for me. When I was making a salad, I would hygienically feed her lettuce leaves, tomato tops, or slices of cucumber. (I do confess to feeding her occasional crumbs from my chocolate cake when no-one was looking.) The day that Annika scolded me for cooking meat, Tia was even more excited than usual. She was anticipating that I would share the mincemeat with her. I started to ingest the meat, but the smell put me off, so I passed most of it off to Tia. Needless to say, she was delighted. However, she didn’t savour it, but rather gulped it down quickly without leaving time to enjoy it.

Annika had always shown a sensitivity to the feelings of animals, even rodents. When we first moved into our house we would sometimes see a sudden movement as a mouse darted between the sofa and the fireplace. It was embarrassing to have a well-to-do guest suddenly ask you, “Was that a mouse?”

I wasn’t sure how to get rid of mice without killing them, and tried sonic deterrents which you could plug into an electric socket. Once Annika spotted a mouse in the house. She thought it was a native mouse, a marsupial, because its forelegs were shorter than its hind legs. She could even see the mouse’s heart beating through its chest as it trembled. Then she felt sorry for it and left it alone. After that I asked my husband to deal with the mice, and didn’t ask any more questions. The mice disappeared.

Until Annika became a vegan I had disassociated meat from animals. The packets of neatly wrapped meat in the supermarkets had nothing to do with the animals that you passed on farms in drives through the country. One day Annika drew a connection between Tia and meat, asking if I would eat Tia. From then on I could associate meat with living animals. The meat shelves in the supermarket became distasteful and I had to look the other way as I passed.

A friend has a business selling kangaroo meat overseas. She made a post on social media explaining why kangaroo meat is better than meat from farms; kangaroos are game, and they are not killed in the abbatoirs. I hesitated over the ‘like’ button as I read this. I was convinced by her argument but reluctant to agree with the notion of killing Australia’s national symbol, featured in our Coat of Arms and decorating the tail of the national carrier.

A kangaroo in the countryside

I work overseas and return to Australia every holiday. My pleasure in Australia’s fauna and flora is enhanced because of my long absences. When I return I am delighted to spot kangaroos in the countryside, possums in tree hollows, and koalas sleeping in trees in the neighbourhood.

Possum

A koala on a tree

Every morning is a visual and auditory feast. I spot rainbow lorikeets on the balcony, and cockatoos feeding on neighbouring lawns.

Cockatoos on the neighbour’s lawn

I listen to families of kookaburras cackling, and magpies serenading me. I am enjoying the fauna more than ever, and I can understand Annika’s feelings for them.

Not only that, times of global turmoil when movement is restricted are ideal for slowing down and appreciating nature. As Alain de Botton says on his homepage, “You normally have to be bashed about a bit by life to see the point of daffodils, sunsets and uneventful nice days.” In these tumultuous and uncertain times there is an exquisite pleasure to be had in communing with animals and birds. Now I can find the time to still myself for long enough to enjoy watching the sulphur-crested cockatoos squawking as they land on the lawn to peck for their dinner.

Nevertheless, my dietary resolutions are more due to the impact of the younger generation than the enhanced appreciation of wildlife afforded by the time for reflection in the lockdown. I will probably remain a pescatarian, or even a flexitarian. I won’t become a vegan and I will respect the choices of my friends and family to eat whatever they want. However, I do understand the younger generation’s commitment to veganism, and am prepared to admit that older is not necessarily wiser.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist in Japan. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Blue Nib, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ MagazineReading in a Foreign Languageand in chapters in anthologies entitled What’s Cooking Mom? Narratives about Food and Family, The Migrant Maternal: “Birthing” New Lives Abroad, and Twenty-First Century Friendshipall published by Demeter Press, Canada.

Categories
Musings

Distant Worlds Converging on Screens during the Global Pandemic

By Meredith Stephens

Adelaide is half an hour ahead of Japan, and today while in lockdown in Adelaide I keep an eye on the clock so I can join a meeting over 7000 kilometres away in Japan. Ten years ago this would have been a scene in a science fiction novel (at least for me), but now I just have to click a link and I can participate in meeting in a distant place and in a different language. Until now my worlds of Australia and Japan have been hermetically sealed. It has been impossible to be simultaneously present in both, but this crisis has brought them together for the first time. I can sit in front of the screen and attend a meeting in Japan, with the comforting presence of my ageing Labrador snoozing at my feet in Adelaide.

Until now my worlds have been separated by distance, language, culture, friends, acquaintances, food, pets, seasons, flora and fauna. Despite these innumerable differences we share one important commonality — the time zone. Adelaide shares its longitude with Japan and is only thirty minutes ahead in the Australian winter, and ninety minutes ahead in the Australian summer. Few have shared my two worlds other than family, a few friends, and a few students. When I go to check in at the airport in Adelaide the ground staff have never heard of the Japanese city where I live. I am the sole person regularly making this particular commute. I rarely tire of having parallel lives in locations which don’t intersect. My work is in Japan, and when I am there, I commute to the workplace, visit the shops and go to the doctor by bicycle. In spring I can enjoy plum blossoms, cherry blossoms, azaleas, irises and hydrangeas. What’s more, nothing rivals the stark beauty and symbolism of Japanese gardens.

I have Japanese friends, so I can enjoy daily conversations in their beautiful language. I can exchange emails in a language which is flexible enough that it can be written both horizontally or vertically. I also have English-speaking friends, mainly Americans and Canadians. It’s very exciting to make North American friends from such distant places as Arkansas, South Carolina, Philadelphia, New York and Spokane in the US, and Quebec, Ontario and Vancouver in Canada. I could never hope to meet such friends in Adelaide, which is in the southern hemisphere and faces the Southern Ocean. So my world has expanded not just because I am in Japan but also because of my ex-patriate friends.

In Adelaide my world is characterized by immediate and extended family, my doggie, and native birds with distinctive birdsong that you will not hear anywhere else. It is always a great pleasure to arrive in Adelaide back from Japan and be woken early in the morning to a family of cackling kookaburras, magpies, and lorikeets.

In the older suburbs, the spaces between houses are wide enough that you can forget that you have neighbours and imagine you are living in the country. Japan has taught me to be alert to seasonal change, and has enhanced my enjoyment of the Australian spring, when I can enjoy golden wattle, bottle brushes, eucalyptus flowers, jacaranda and roses.

It’s gratifying to participate in two different cultures and landscapes as I commute between Japan and Australia. However, each side is pulling my allegiance in a different direction. My colleagues in Japan think that I take off to Australia too often, and my family in Australia tell me it is time to come home. Each side seems to be unaware of how important the other side is to me. I feel guilty that I cannot please both parties, but I can give up neither. I hope the decision will be taken out of my hands. There is a word in Japanese to indicate the struggle between two children when they fight for a toy and neither will let go- toriai – and I feel like that toy which is being pulled in two directions.

It has taken a global pandemic for these two worlds to converge. Protecting people’s health has led to Australia’s international and state borders being closed. International flights have been cancelled. My lifestyle of commuting to Japan has come to an abrupt halt. Social distancing has been imposed. Shops, other than supermarkets and pharmacies, are closed. Most medical appointments are now by telehealth. Meanwhile my employer has entreated me to return to Japan and I feel guilty for refusing, but I am frightened of both the trip and being marooned in a country where I have no family.

A hurried solution to this has been online participation in meetings. This has been facilitated because of sharing a common time zone. If I were in America or Europe I might find myself participating in meetings during the night. My hitherto mutually irreconcilable worlds are finally converging. I have been able to click on a link and hear the familiar voices of Japanese-speaking colleagues from the comfort of my Adelaide sofa, with my faithful doggie at my feet. Never has participation in a meeting been so pleasurable. I can listen to my sweet Labrador’s regular deep breathing, progressing to gentle snoring as she rests, oblivious to this international communication. When I rest my eyes on the computer screen during the meeting I see the familiar Japanese writing, and watch the movement of the mouse as the moderator indicates the progression of the agenda. Meanwhile the intense Australian sunshine forces its way through the slats in the blinds. For the first time I might be able to hear kookaburras competing for my attention during a meeting which is being held in Japan. The hermetic seal between these two worlds over 7000 kilometres apart has been punctured, and I feel a sense of relief that the familiar voices of Japanese colleagues can reach me not only in the southern hemisphere, but also on the southern coast of this Antipodean continent.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist in Japan. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Blue Nib, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ MagazineReading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies entitled What’s Cooking Mom? Narratives about Food and Family, The Migrant Maternal: “Birthing” New Lives Abroad, and Twenty-First Century Friendship, all published by Demeter Press, Canada.