Dear Northern Hemisphere,

I meant to write sooner. But to be honest, I was exhausted after our COVID winter. We spent the month of January recovering at the beach in Queensland. It was glorious and exactly what we all needed. Anyway, by now you are truly in the throes of your COVID winter, so you may be more interested in the advice I have for you than you would have been in December.

The COVID winter was a rough one here in Melbourne. As far as the weather goes, our winter is like four months of your November strung together. It is cold, dark and rainy. As you can appreciate, this made the gloominess of COVID even worse. We had two lockdowns. The first started for our family in April. Less than 48 hours prior to my husband’s return from an overseas trip, the Prime Minister announced that all travelers retuning from overseas would have to quarantine for 14 days at home. I took the kids out of school and began working from home. Although I had stocked up on groceries beforehand, we inevitably ran out of things. Our neighbors were champions, delivering milk, bread and the hot-crossed buns we craved in the lead up to Easter. The local bookstore delivered stacks of books. We had all the essentials covered. But by  the time we emerged from quarantine, schools had closed and we were heading into the first phase of lockdown in our city.

As you can imagine, my job at the Health Department got hectic. What had once been a moderately paced, public servant role became one in which I could have worked like someone making twice my salary. The work was urgent, always. On top of the fact that the whole department was figuring out how to respond to a pandemic, we knew how many lives could be at stake.

At the same time, remote learning began. The nightmare looked like this:  one child rolled around on the carpet behind me in a continuous tantrum while I was on a continuous zoom call. The other child got a laptop shoved in her hands and was more or less left to homeschool herself. This went on for months as it became darker and colder both outside and inside the house.

By mid-winter our lockdown had been effective in stemming the tide of cases. Restrictions began to ease and schools were reopened. Parents across Melbourne breathed a collective sigh of relief. It didn’t last long. COVID got into the nursing homes and spread like wildfire. At its peak, our city of 4.5 million was experiencing upwards of 700 new cases every day. Restrictions were tightened, resulting in what would be the harshest, longest and most successful lockdown in the world. Face masks were required the moment we left our homes. Everything that wasn’t essential closed – schools, shops, restaurants, libraries, cinemas. A “ring of steel” was enforced around the city, preventing Melbournians from leaving the city and spreading the virus to rural Victoria, which had few to no cases. People were not allowed to travel further than five kilometers (three miles) from their homes unless they were attending a medical appointment. Police checked peoples’ movements and a curfew was enforced. The lockdown lasted 112 days.

Despite the oppressive weight of the restrictions, we knew we were lucky. We were healthy and we still had our jobs. The inner city townhouse we pay an exorbitant rent for, suddenly seemed worth it as its location placed us in a 5k radius of a sprawling park, a river, a local shopping strip and a fabulous community. We also had state and federal governments we trusted to call the shots in the best interest of its citizens. The government provided the financial support people needed to comply with restrictions. All the effort and sacrifice took our city from a situation that teetered on the brink of becoming out of control, to zero community-transferred cases within months.

Our COVID winter in Melbourne was difficult for us as a community and difficult for us as a family. Here’s what helped us stay somewhat sane at our house:

Feasts

Soon after we went into lockdown, my husband decided it would be morale-boosting to cook a feast from a different culture every weekend. He is an excellent cook, so we all got excited in threw ourselves into the task of suggesting different feasts. We started with Ethiopian – one of our favorite things to eat out, but something we’d never tried at home. While the injera was sadly a fail, the dishes that topped it were as delicious as we’d remembered having in restaurants. The warmth of them all the more satisfying in the gloominess of our COVID winter.

Preparing feasts was one of the few things we could do for entertainment, but it also gave us a sense of celebration and a marking of the week’s end as the dark days ran into weeks and months. One of the oldest and most human ways of celebrating, brought warmth and light into the darkness.

Dogs

If you’ve been thinking of getting a dog, now is the time to do it. Our kids had wanted a dog for many years and we put if off waiting until they were older and able to help take care of one. As COVID hit, our 11 year old ramped up her campaign for a dog exponentially. Every time she got one of us alone, her sentence would start with, “So about that dog…” followed by a pledge to take care of the dog or arguments extolling the benefits of dogs. She followed up by searching for dogs on animal rescue websites and presenting us with adorable candidates. She did an excellent job presenting her case, but what got us to say yes was her sadness. This is the kid who was given a laptop and had been homeschooling herself for months without a complaint. She missed her friends, she missed school, she missed going to circus practice, she missed the life she’d known before lockdown. We got a dog for her but in the end he saved the entire family’s mental health. Here are some tips I’ve picked up from our dog:

1. Seeing the people you love every morning is reason to dance with joy.

2. When one of the people you love, leaves it’s reason enough to stand at the door and whimper a bit.

3. You should have a nap in the sun every day.

Games

Sure, our Netflix account got a good workout. When we were recently looking through the offerings in the kid’s section for family movie night, it became clear that our nine year old has watched everything available. So there really is only so much you can watch. At some point, you need to turn from the screen and face the other people you are locked up with. One of the best ways we found to do that was with a good old fashioned game. We played a lot of Cluedo, Yahtzee and Uno and its successor Phase 10. Gathering as a family to play a game brought us together as Netflix never will. We bantered, talked shit, mourned our losses and relished our victories – but all in the playful spirit of a game. We all went to be happier and more satisfied than we did when we’d watched a show together, it ended and we all dragged ourselves in the post-TV depression from the sofa.

Letters

At the risk of sounding quaint, I’m going to suggest you write letters. Right about now in your COVID winter, you’re zoomed out. In the beginning we thought, “We’re locked in our houses, but no problem, we’ve got zoom!” By now you’d probably rather stare at a blank wall than be involved in one more virtual meeting. This means you’ve arrived in the headspace for letter writing.

Before you dismiss the idea, imagine going to your mailbox today and finding a letter amongst all the bills and junk mail. That is the joy and wonder you will bring to whomever you choose to write now. Sit down with a blank piece of paper and start writing to the first person you think of. It might just be a note or it could turn into a full-blown letter with multiple pages. After traveling from your hand through the post to the hands of your friend, that simple piece of paper will be transformed into a gift like nothing available on Amazon. It won’t just have an effect on your friend. When I write a letter, the small talk I use in emails, or on the phone, falls away. I write more about what is essential to me. I ask my reader about what is essential to him or her. My letter becomes I message from my heart to my reader’s heart.  The long evenings of winter are a perfect time to write letters. Take a break from scrolling through your social media feed and write a letter or a quick card to the first person you think of when you picture someone going to get the post from the mailbox.

Naps

See the advice from my dog above. You may think, “Why am I so exhausted? I’m not going anywhere or doing anything!” Lockdown exhaustion creeps up on you and slowly saps you of energy. I’m sure there are plenty of psychological reasons for this, but what matters is that you take care of yourself. I like to have a short nap after lunch, followed by a coffee to wake me up for the afternoon. It not only refreshes me, but the little routine helps add just a bit more structure to the haze of lockdown days.

Walks

Get out for a walk every day. Again, this is where the dog comes in. When you have a dog, you have to go for a walk. Every day. Rain or shine. You think it is for him, but again, he is doing you a bigger favor and again, saving your mental health.

Connect

Call your loved ones more than you usually do. Call those who live alone. They need to know they are still connected to other people. Your short, frequent calls can be a life line. Send uplifting or funny texts to your friends who are homeschooling. They may not have the time to talk, especially if they are also working from home as well, but they sure could use a laugh right about now. Call the wise people in your life. They will steady you.

Know we are thinking of you. We went through our COVID winter six months ahead of you. We know how dark the COVID winter can be and we are with you in spirit as you trudge through these long, endless days. Summer came for us here and we were able to enjoy some freedom and rest. You will too. In the meantime, know we are thinking of you every day.

Sending love,

The Southern Hemisphere

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