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What I learned in 2020: Emma Macdonald

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As one of humanity’s most trying years comes to an end, we take a moment to reflect.

Canberrans have fared through devastating bushfires, suffocating smoke, destructive hail and a global pandemic in 2020. So undoubtedly, we’ve learned some things.

This week, HerCanberra’s Associate Editor Emma Macdonald shares her memories and learnings of 2020, and her hopes for 2021.

Emma Macdonald

Associate Editor, HerCanberra

Paint a picture of you after summer 2019/20. How were you affected by the bushfires and smoke?

I will never forget the thick, rolling blanket of smoke which tumbled across Ainslie on New Year’s Eve. We thought there was a fire in the next street the smoke was so noxious and fast-rolling.

We were having a swim and preparing for a quiet glass of bubbles to ring in the New Year in a very understated way. Instead, we bundled the kids inside and closed all the doors and windows. It felt like we were in a Cormac McCarthy novel and as the days passed I had some sort of existential crisis.

I thought back to every selfish thing I have done at the expense of the environment—every hot water wash of laundry, every take-away coffee cup, every piece of misplaced recycling and every extravagant decision I made where I somehow convinced myself it didn’t matter. I felt like we had tipped over into an actual abyss and I was complicit in ruining the environment for my children. My grief and guilt were overwhelming.

If there was ever a wake-up call I needed, then not being able to breathe the air was it. Since then I have made some significant changes in my life and lived with more environmental awareness and good intent.

My mate Sarah Wilson gave me some good advice when I expressed my state of overwhelm. She said simply that I should do what I can. And so I do. Small changes make a difference if we are all doing them together.

How did you fare in the great hailstorm of 2020?

Miraculously our home and cars missed damage but that afternoon I went to the supermarket and saw almost every car in the carpark had smashed windscreens.

I remember driving over streets which were blanketed with shredded leaves. I was in a state of shock at the state of my beautiful city but grateful beyond words for our Emergency Services teams.

What were your first impressions of COVID in early 2020?

We had joked in the office that the fires and flood would be followed by a pestilence, but by now things were not funny at all. As someone who has battled a few OCD tendencies and is a germaphobe, the idea that a deadly virus was heading our way went to the very core of my anxiety.

I started working from home very early on and was happy to pull my kids out of school for home learning (how stupidly naïve was I that I could educate them and stay sane at the same time!).

I wrote a story where I interviewed Australian National University social anthropologist Professor Simone Dennis about how social conventions were changing as we negotiated a global pandemic and that we would no longer shake hands or touch socially.

I said that I found myself walking around in public trying not to breathe deeply with a pained look on my face and she said that was a really normal response to express disgust as way to limit possible contagion.

I made an effort to try and at least smile when I saw people on a walk or during my fast and furious visits to the supermarket. I remember turning my entire focus on my home and children, and things that seemed to give us happiness and a sense of normality were family meals together and long afternoon walks.


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I tried to put on a brave face for my kids but I found that I could not sleep well or distract myself easily through normal channels like reading. Thank god for Tiger King and the start of a Netflix addiction. And wine. Thank god for wine.

What was your first memory of being materially affected by COVID?

HerCanberra suffered an immediate hit in that a media company that covers eating out, entertainment and events—among other things—suddenly had to adapt to the fact that no one was going anywhere.

We made the heartbreaking decision not to print our Magazine, we lost considerable advertising revenue overnight, and said goodbye to team members. To further ease financial pressure on the business, our fearless leader Amanda Whitley made the decision to leave the day-to-day running of the company to the tiny team left behind and take up an ACT Government COVID-related communications job.

It was an extraordinary act of sacrifice and I cannot imagine how diabolical this year has been for her—trying to keep her business and dreams alive while doing an important job serving the community in a different way. We’re working to get the business back to where it was pre-pandemic so she can return to us, sooner rather than later.

There were some tough conversations that were had. But despite the odds being stacked against us, we pivoted to new things, we worked extraordinarily hard and we kept engaged with our audience through relevant stories and content.

There was also some fun stuff like Corona-Time Cooking and Corona-Time cocktails, and online book clubs. Our audience grew steadily as a result. We got through the worst of it together and now I am delighted to say we are emerging in a stronger position than ever. (Wouldn’t mind a holiday but!).


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What were the low points of 2020?

There have been many. But attending an online funeral of a friend was a pretty desolate experience.

All the cancelled plans, trips, concerts, events, and a general loss of liberty and freedom seem silly to mourn given the bigger picture. But I have felt definite moments of personal loss.

What were the high points of 2020?

Family and community. I have never felt luckier to love or be loved. And despite the world turning upside down, I have experienced joys and conversations and side-splitting laughter in amongst it all.

Humans are bloody amazing and resilient and this year I have spent time with some wonderful people. One small daily happiness that evolved out of the loss of our ability to attend concerts and live music events was my husband and I got into the habit of playing records in the late afternoon.

We started at A (Abba) and we are currently up to R (Rolling Stones). I think I will now always associate sitting in our front room, watching the sunset and listening to vinyl with our year of hunkering down.

Also, and most importantly, we got a floof baby. The absolute best thing to happen this year.


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What’s the biggest positive change to your work or personal life that you’ll carry into the future?

I have slowed down. Last year was so crazy and over-scheduled, I had actually made a personal resolution to cut back in 2020. Little did I realise my social life would start and end at my front door. It is not exactly what I had in mind.

I have, however, loved the opportunity to work from home and turn my focus inwards. The quiet and introspection opportunities have been exactly what I needed. I still reckon I have PTSD from those six weeks of home learning, however!

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Cheers friends. It’s been a diabolical week in which so many of us have pulled back from our workplaces, networks and general routines in order to self isolate. But I left the house to join @themartiniwhisperer for a martini sesh which we recorded live over at @hercanberra. I had so much fun with my darling friend Phillip and I realize we are all feeling the same frailties and fears as each other. Check in with your friends – even if you can’t share a drink with them (I am pretty sure those martinis were so strong the corona virus would not stand a chance and we wiped everything down with Detol just to be sure…)It may feel like the end of days, yet we are all in it together. ❤️

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What did you learn in 2020?

That nothing is more precious than oxygen. That change must happen environmentally. That I can make an impact personally. That I must not turn away because the problem is overwhelming.

If, like the internet memes suggest, that Mother Nature has sent us all to our rooms to consider what we have done to her this year, then I am suitably chastened. I will try harder. Also, wash your hands.

How are you feeling about 2021?

I have absolutely no expectations about next year! I am taking each day as it comes.

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