I say goodbye to the 5km boundary with a tinge of regret


I came to Melbourne as a 20-something. Like an imperial dilettante, I read a Helen Garner novel and a festival brochure and I was in. Add to cart, as if a sense of place is simply there for the taking, as straightforward as booking a flight and signing a lease. I went to drama school here, fell in love with the streets of the CBD and served thousands of people as a waitress in tiny bars.

I skipped between Sydney and Melbourne until we landed here, heavy with children, three years ago, and since then I’ve realised how much a sense of place is something that you earn the right to over time, rather than something you claim.

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The 5km limit taught me to see this place, walk on the lands of the Yalukut-Weelam people, envision the riches that once were and acknowledge that I know nothing. I look for signs in the air, the earth, the sky, and I know nothing. I can perceive nothing.

I can appreciate, however. In stage-four lockdown, the smallest of experiences became magnified. We learned the names of the flowers, sought the birds in the trees. We rhapsodised with offerings from nature, something to break up the days. We marvelled at springtime weeds adorning the median strip and spied a dead possum, entrails discarded by a fox. Our morning walk was ritually punctuated by wooden spoons in drag, and the orange tree, its bright green buds turning ever so slowly into sticky fruit.

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These wholesome encounters with nature were, I noticed, shared by all walks of life. I spotted young professionals and boomers alike furtively reaching out their hands to brush fingertips against trees. Orthodox men took gulps of cool air, before beards upstaged their surgical masks once more. We can’t read each other’s faces any longer, but we can interpret these gestures.

A month into the second wave, a neighbour texted me on Whatsapp, “I need help.” A giant of a man, always first to find solutions and fix things in the building.

Girls playing in the bunk bed, dinner in the oven, I knocked on his door and found him heaving, breathless, shuddering and broken. It was the first time he had felt the touch of another human for months. Intensely private and reluctant to burden anyone, he accepted my offerings of humble dinner deliveries until he was somewhat more stable.

Another neighbour, struggling with home schooling, took a walk with me and together we spied all the blue-grey chinks of Port Phillip Bay, where kangaroos once roamed. We looked up to the Melbourne sky, with its persistent clouds, connecting us to something vertical and infinite, far beyond the strictures of the 5km.

I hope these encounters aren’t discarded by our ramp up into the new COVID-normal, which promises a pace of life we knew before, with added paperwork.

I hope the intimate and the vulnerable are not replaced by hurried surface chat. Melbourne, with its intense weather and true seasons, has always been a place for depth of experience, perhaps never more so than the winter of 2020. The 100-plus days of lockdown was a time when the question “how are you?” carried weight, demanding an honest response.

Emerging from this 5km chrysalis, I hope we are transformed in some way, touched by the remote bonds we formed with our people and our place. I associate this city now not with impermanence but with a sense of fullness and responsibility, no longer an arbitrary place I’ve wound up in simply to benefit from its virtues, but a place I call home.

Meredith Penman is a Melbourne writer.

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