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This morning I awoke to the distant sound of an aircraft skimming across the city. It jolted me into wakefulness, this noise pollution seeping slowly into my consciousness. Where is this beast headed, I wondered, and what is it carrying within its cold metal belly?

Sky with bird and plane (Getty image/Lingxiao Xie)

So rapidly have I adapted to this surreal existence in which we now find ourselves, the sound which was once an inseparable part of my morning routine — jets announcing the dawn as they droned overhead — has now become disturbingly anachronistic. It was me who once occupied the belly of those now mostly grounded beasts as they flew low over leafy suburbs, the former me who spent my life leaving home and returning, leaving home and returning from journeys in which I crisscrossed the globe many times over.

Sinking low over Sydney, I’d peer out of the plane window at the emerald cloud arising to meet me (it was no good at night, of course, for the city is transformed into an unintelligible disco spangle of light and dark once the sun goes down). From this fleeting perspective, I’d try to map my position according to my memory of this city: here is the artery coursing through its suburbs and piercing the CBD’s heart like an arrow; there are the ovals on which my children once played and the office clusters and concrete parking lots and the beachside shabby chic shacks splashed by the Pacific Ocean; and here are the creeks meandering like green-bellied snakes through suburban neighbourhoods and that ceaseless bushland — so menacingly close to the suburbs at any moment now it will open its maw and swallow them whole.

Thrilling though my travel to foreign lands had been, it was my own city which inspired in me the deepest sense of longing and connection — reconnection — each time I sunk back down into it. Every landing was soft, every welcome warm and familiar. I was seeing this place with newly appreciative eyes: the people’s expressions were explicable, the currency logical, the coffee shops easy to locate and the public transport a breeze to navigate.

Perhaps this is why I find myself — in these early days of lockdown, at least — surprisingly bereft of wanderlust, though I’ve made a career from it. Serendipitously, I had decided at the end of last year to voluntarily ground myself for the first quarter of 2020, to give myself an opportunity to regroup after driving myself to the point of burnout.

I’d existed for several years within a whirlwind of back-to-back travel assignments interspersed with truncated periods at home which I’d spend chained to my desk chasing ever-encroaching deadlines. Stories take time to write, and yet time had become meaningless; an incessant fug of work and jetlag had long since sent my circadian rhythms into a death spiral. I wrote on planes and trains, in departure lounges and in hotel rooms at three o’ clock in the morning. I arrived at my destination after a long-haul flight spent rigidly upright and immediately set about gathering material; when I returned home people asked how my holiday had been.


'In my own isolation, I’m slowly digesting the extraordinary experiences I’ve been privileged to have, yet which I’ve seldom had the time to adequately contemplate.'


But the start of the new decade presented a fresh opportunity. I hadn’t taken a day off in well over a year. I would ground myself for three months, I decided; tackle my backlog — so monstrous now its proportions were intruding into my already broken sleep and shaking me awake in a terrified sweat.

I would cohabit for these long months with my neglected family and with my sweet little dogs, so wary of my comings and goings the very sight of my suitcase would cause them to crumple with disappointment. I would awake when the sun raised me and would earth myself in my walled garden, with its towering eucalypts and kookaburras machine-gunning their early morning arguments and asparagus fern taking ownership in my absence. I’d reclaim a place which I held sacred yet which I inhabited more like an occasional interloper than an adoring mistress.

Now COVID-19 has sent the world into lockdown, and it feels like the universe is colluding with me. I’m fortunate, yes, to have not suffered (so far) the potentially fatal effects of this pandemic.

As are the other fortunate of the world’s residents: they’re spending their days healthy yet restrained, pacing the confines of their bedrooms and balconies and gardens and home offices. Or they’re slowing down, taking the measure of their lives, allowing themselves long moments in which they might retreat from a world that has bent them into a static, brittle shape; a world that demands far too much of them and delivers far too little.

In my own isolation, I’m slowly digesting the extraordinary experiences I’ve been privileged to have, yet which I’ve seldom had the time to adequately contemplate. Connected though I am with friends I’ve made all over the word, I find myself questioning, not for the first time, those laden planes that lumber heavenwards and lace our skies with jet-streams, Morse code from people who fear being tethered to one place for too long. As I fold compost into my garden, I envisage the ships churning our oceans, the plastic blooming on uninhabited beaches I’ve visited in the world’s remotest parts, the economy we’re told will wither unless we fatten it with our material desires.

I haven’t an answer to the dilemmas we face — humanitarian disaster, economic ruin, ecological collapse. But I have all the time in the world in which to formulate one.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. 

Main image: Sky with bird and plane (Getty image/Lingxiao Xie)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, working from home, COVID-19, social distancing, travel



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Existing comments

So enjoyed your article Catherine. How wonderful it is to stay in one place 'home' for a time and complete all those tasks that have been hanging around forever. We shall surely be refreshed on many counts when the outside world starts up again. Enjoy your quiet contemplation and thanks.

Penny | 20 April 2020  

Nicely written... the irony being those same silver wings and roaring engines nonchalantly breathed in tonnes of air per second, exhaling their carbon waste globally for years... and now have relentlessly distributed a virus, the instrument of their current demise, internationally. The 5AM "wake up" flight which used to pass over my home has been temporarily silenced; the world travellers are now home - many lawfully but unwillingly forced to the confines of a hotel, then to join the ranks of urban and suburban confined dwellers; life's suddenly bleak and uncertain... Perhaps now some will come to understand that the suffering of opressive isolation is some elderly or disabled person's lot in life; jet-setters with their wings clipped and horizons narrowed can know a snippet of the everyday for some; draw a long bath then pull the plug, that impossible heaviness sensation as the water drains away can top off the incapacitated experience before you launch into an online jazzercise session.

ray | 20 April 2020  

Grounded? Good. Australia. Safe. Elsewhere? Not. Australia. Godzone. Grounded? Good.

roy chen yee | 20 April 2020  

This morning I awoke to the distant buzz-saw sound of an aircraft boring through the city air. My eyes opened and stared at the ceiling as my awakening to that terrible sound bothered me and my mind in its torment etched the image of a mechanical creature motoring north in the sky. What was it carrying in its talons?

Len Heggarty | 24 April 2020  

The planes over my house are usually relentless in a northerly wind. Great to have, like the author, some peace at moment. Though I wish Mr Andrews would introduce a curfew so our family's sleep isn't affected for months on end each year.

Paul Mitchell | 24 April 2020  

Thank you, Catherine. Like you, I'm loving the silence and also, the sight of the uncluttered sky.

Patricia Moore | 13 May 2020  

A beautiful tale Catherine. Many a long year ago when I was about to embark on my first business trip to the Arabian Gulf, my then boss gave me wise council. He said I would spend many a meal alone in mostly empty hotel dinning rooms. He suggested I treat it as a privilege to be able to spend time to sit and think, read, contemplate (and do reports as the business demanded). Indeed it was, and now in this Covid lock up, I am reminded of what a privilege it is to be able to now catch up on all the reading and writing I have missed in the decades in between as the busyness of life ebbs away.

Ken Wilson | 17 September 2020  

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