Michael Conole

19 May 2020

I have a new employer every few weeks. When I finish one job, another is ready to begin. When the power goes off, I can do it all with hand tools. It might take a while longer but the result is the same. I must be frugal and motivated, but I can survive adversity. I’m a self-employed artist and furniture maker.

My partner, after losing her job as a teacher began a new career recently, teaching online to keep her employer’s school afloat. Simultaneously, my son began online learning. Having braved his first term at high school with no friends from his former school for support, he started the ordeal of managing time, curriculum and reporting to both parents and teachers. Both my partner and son have adapted quickly which is quite remarkable.

With dwindling work opportunities I began working more on projects that allayed my barely concealed anxieties about losing my locked down father in his nursing home, my lonely mother who falls and grieves alone in her home of 55 years and my ability to provide for myself. 

With no income I can still make new boots, build a wardrobe for my partner and sail homemade Galleons down the Merri with my boy, so I do.  Artists and low-income earners must find joy and meaning in life with their meagre resources. An ordeal like this can stimulate creativity and return a degree of autonomy and self-reliance to broken people.

Broken people, however come in many forms and self-reliance is commonly a burden for people who need support. My partner, my son and I are a loving family so we each do what we must to endure this pandemic. My mother though found herself stranded. She has food delivered, but no company. At 84 she forgets to eat sometimes. After a few weeks of confinement, I had to see her. She was undernourished. As I was saying goodbye, she tripped on nothing and fell on her front on a path, narrowly escaping real harm. As she lay with her cane trapped under her legs, looking dispirited, she whispered “fuck”. Her humiliation crushed me. But my mother is tough and she rose to her feet and sent me away.

That night, our neighbour took to the street with a knife to confront her sister. The police were called. She was chased by two police officers as she tried to stand and calm herself. Their command was to “chill out”. Hearing sounds of laboured breathing, I intervened, asked them to be respectful. When the officers saw a white male, the dynamic changed and a knee was removed from her neck. This neighbour has not returned.

The following day I shut the window to go to bed, I heard a faint call for help. Thinking it was coming from a distance, I dressed and ran out the door to find another neighbour lying in the rain on a smashed wine glass. She was having a seizure, having overdosed. My partner and I nursed her for 45 minutes while an ambulance came, accompanied by 7 police officers. They rushed past me in masks and gloves as I bled. I enquired as to whether I might be in danger. Apparently not, I concluded.

Two days later the same thing occurred to this troubled woman.

This eventful period continued for another 4 days, with people around me falling apart, ending in my illness, testing for covid-19 and recovery.

What I’ve observed in this period of confinement in my personal life has been largely very rewarding, an even greater affinity for the people I love. I have also seen what happens when people with very weak social connections are left to fend for themselves.

I cannot emphasise how important it is to learn about your community, neighbours and elders. Learn enough about who you share the street with so as to be the unexpected defender or supporter in times of crisis.

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Michael Conole is a multi-discipline artist and furniture maker, and a member of IPCS.