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It rained late this afternoon. In the silence that followed the birdsong was almost deafening. What do they notice, I wondered. A change in the air? Fewer people? Less noise? Finely attuned to their surroundings as they are, the birds must surely register something.
I register something, but it’s very hard to put my finger on what it is. Here in our village it’s quiet. There are few people about and little traffic. We walk by the river, through the woods or up the glen, stepping respectfully aside as we pass. Sometimes we stop and chat. ‘How’re you doing?’ ‘Fine thanks, and you?’ The village shop is open, the post office too. It’s tempting to say there’s an air of calm, but that wouldn’t be quite true.
Last weekend, on a cloudless day with not a breath of wind, so still we could hear the plovers’ wingbeats as they swooped us away from their nests, we walked eight miles through the hills to the next village. From the highest point on the walk we could see the full three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, snowy hills to the north and west, a tumble of hazy farmland to south and east, the only movement a solitary tractor trundling back and forth in a field. An almost indescribably perfect April day. And yet …
Once a month the dozen of us who make up the Dark Angels team check in by email. We’ve been doing it since the start of the year. We write a few sentences each about what we’ve been up to. It’s a lovely way of staying connected with one another.
Last week I wrote about the pleasures of lockdown, of spending time outdoors repairing an old garden bench as displacement activity for almost everything, of having time to closely observe the arrival of spring. ‘And then,’ I wrote, ‘out there there’s death and grief and fear and bravery and kindness and lies and incompetence … and there are moments when I feel, How the hell do I join all this up? And the ground beneath my feet feels very shaky.’
For the first two or three weeks of lockdown I went into a kind of overdrive, a frenzy of rearranging, learning about Zoom, creating meetings and rewriting courses to work online. It was a furious need to stay connected. Then the energy began to dissipate. Since, I have had days of feeling exhausted and almost tearful. I find it hard to focus on anything for very long, as if I’m constantly distracted by something just out of my field of vision.
I can do the things I absolutely have to, the things that demand total concentration. I’ve run some Zoom sessions. I play the piano a lot and look forward to recording a new Randy Newman song every weekend to post on Facebook. But I can’t seem to concentrate on the big writing project I have on hand, or any of the other creative activities I’ve been storing up for just such a moment as this.
I know of a few people who’ve had the virus, though not of anyone who’s died. We’re as far from any of the hotspots as we could be. We’re fortunate to have plenty of space and more than enough to eat and drink. While we’re being cautious, neither of us is afraid. The thing we notice most is that we miss the children and grandchildren.
And yet … it seems that we are not immune from this thing. However shielded we might appear to be, it’s affecting us on some deep, existential level. Uncertainty, limbo? That’s part of it, but I think there’s something more elemental, more atavistic, more unfathomable at play than that. I’m not sure what it is. Some kind of Jungian monster perhaps.
Whatever it may be, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to deal with it is to roll with it, to acknowledge the days when one feels troubled or sad or unsettled, and accept that this is both something that is too big to resist, and something that in time will pass.
I put down these thoughts here because for many years now I’ve come to understand myself better through writing this blog. But I’ve also written because I wonder whether my experience of this extraordinary time has echoes for anyone else?
You can listen to my weekly recordings of Randy Newman songs on YouTube, here.
We (The Stories We Tell) are running a short one-day online workshop on Living With Lockdown on May 12 and 16. Details here.
Thank you for writing this. I find I’m able to talk quite blithely about the positives of sheltering-in-place: the time for projects that I wouldn’t normally tackle and long walks and lots of paying attention to the flowers and birds. But I need to try and sort through the dark days, too.
Very well put Jamie – can relate to this perfectly .
Aye, I feel exactly the same. Peaked early on with an enthusiastic anti-viral defence and now calmer, slower though much less expressive than you, guru! I’m angry too, maybe that’s just me, about attitudes, to our old folk. We laud Colonel Tom, as we should, what an inspiration, yet there seems too ready an acceptance of the loss of his peer group, less able and possibly less well looked after.
I think it gets harder as the weeks drag on and initial energy dissipates – especially if it is unclear when it might come to an end. I always predicted that the lockdown would last until the beginning of May at the earliest, despite it being extended fortnight by fortnight and so, unlike many here, was not living with false hopes.
We are now about to start our 8th week with Phase 0 of the exit (there will be another 4 phases which will – if all continues to go well – lead us to the “new normal” by mid-June, though not everywhere as the phases will run asymmetrically by Province) in which children are allowed to go out and exercise with a parent (max 3 children per adult) and from tomorrow for adults to also go out and exercise, both groups for up to one hour and within a 1km radius of home. I will start wearing a mask for the first time as maintaining a safe hygiene distance (nothing social about it) may prove difficult, especially as we are due the warmest weekend of the year.
I’m blessed with a cheerful disposition and dark days are rare, almost something to be savoured before they fade away. I am thus far untouched personally by the virus, and pray God, will remain so but reel in horror at the numbers dying, in anger at the lack of preparation for the virus and protection of frontline medical staff and essential workers but rejoicing in good news stories such as the 100 year old lady who beat the virus, or the neighbours who went out to clap their neighbour who is a nurse working in ICT when he returned home from another gruelling shift at 11:30pm, or yesterday, when Civil Protection brought their ambulance and two other emergency vehicles to wish their colleague (who lives in front of us) a happy 40th birthday.
What I have found really important is maintaining routine. We get up and go to bed at the same time as though we were going to work; we have our meals at the same time; in lieu of work I do a couple of hours studying (trying to improve my level of Spanish), and after lunch I’m reading grammar and Spanish History (being abandoned by the UK Government I’m hoping to get Spanish citizenship before the end of the year – Covid-19 permitting). At the weekends, and festivals, we get up later and I don’t study Spanish but write pieces for church (when eventually it resumes), some of which having been buzzing around the edges of my mind for months.
Finally, I worry somewhat about the messages of false hope proclaimed by the children’s rainbow posters with the message, “Quedate en casa – todo saldrá” (Stay at home – everything will be alright) – it may be true for a lucky few, but for many it is not going to be alright; not for those who have lost loved ones without being able to say goodbye; not for those who have developed new health problems following their recovery from Covid-19; not for those who have lost their jobs; not for those who are struggling to feed their families in the worst recession since the 1930s. But, then I guess any hope is better than fear in the darkest part of the storm.
Thank you Jamie, for so expressively articulating what many of us are struggling to pin down. We too are rural, remote enough to feel very safe, and with space to find solitude and absorb the wonders of Spring. We have our daughter, son-in-law and their new baby with us, so have the huge joy of intimately watching this new life develop day by day. Small ploys, like planting seeds, digging the veggie patch, tackling a new recipe, can all be taken gently and savoured. I am guilty that I am finding so much personal joy in the situation. I have stopped listening to the news or watching it on TV, a quick daily scan of the online paper is sufficient to realise that our politicians are bumbling through with ever-changing stats and that the heroes of the piece repeatedly and selflessly expose themselves to serve others. Yet sleep is poor and that underlying unease surfaces at unexpected times and catches me, too elusive to really tackle. I too am trying to simply acknowledge these feelings and let them drift on- mercifully they are transient. I suspect re-integration will be a challenge; I am increasingly comfortable in our family cocoon and wish to face the world at the end of our track less and less. For all sorts of reasons, maybe we have just got too big, too global and interconnected, yet somehow remote from those closest to us. Perhaps we need to think smaller, simpler, kinder and less for ourselves. We need to re-establish the face to face, skin to skin bonds that have been replaced for so many by a screen or a keyboard.
I write this from a position of no personal loss nor hardship, though certainly change. I understand that there are many who are bruised, scared, hungry and bereft and in the light of their experiences, may feel very differently.
“And yet … it seems that we are not immune from this thing. However shielded we might appear to be, it’s affecting us on some deep, existential level.”
Yes, I get this completely, Jamie. And also I feel that sense of failing to ‘make the most’ of the fact that all this uninterrupted writing time has suddenly been presented to me. Forty days – in theory that’s time to write a short novel! In practice, I have work to get on with and am doing that, but distraction is easy. I spend a lot of time on Facebook (a good way of maintaining contact and seeing what others are up to) but, as the days go by, read and watch less news, as it becomes less informative and (sorry to say) ever more riddled with propaganda of various kinds.
But maybe, at a personal level, this isn’t really failure, maybe it’s about resetting, slowing down, having time to think and also appreciating the benefits of living in a small community where people are looking out for one another. Maybe it’s about preparing NOT to go back to how things were, since we can’t, and trying to shape a way to live differently in the future.
Thank you for this, Jamie. You’ve captured better than anyone else I’ve seen the odd combination of emotions and altered state I feel I’m in. These sentences especially rings true: ‘I find it hard to focus on anything for very long, as if I’m constantly distracted by something just out of my field of vision. I can do the things I absolutely have to, the things that demand total concentration.’
I think it’s some combination of the vast unknowableness of it all and the constant (sometimes conscious, sometimes not) awareness of threat that is affecting my focus and concentration. We’re trying to address this as a logical, solvable problem when our brains and bodies are reacting with a degree of instinct – thus the odd dissonance. Will this change? I’m not sure. As the shape of this becomes clearer and we adapt, perhaps. But I think we all know that life will never be the same again, which is perhaps why giving things like spring birdsong and flowers blooming our attention is so gratifying – a comforting reminder of an unchanged and beautiful world.
Thanks Jamie, it felt so good to read myself in this, you and the other commenters have tapped into such common experiences and described them beautifully. I thought that I was coping quite well, but like everyone, I’m also feeling the rug pulled from under me. On one level, I understand why there are times when I’m experiencing sleeplessness, strange and intense dreams, highs and lows in motivation and concentration and uncontrollable weeping (mainly in my online yoga sessions). But it still floors me. We’re rural too, and taking a lot of comfort from nature, noticing it far more (and I always thought that I noticed it a lot), counting our blessings and also feeling guilty for them. Constantly, constantly hoping that the world does not go back to how it was, and that we all come to really understand the difference between want and need.
I can relate to your feelings. I am shielding, so am missing walking so much. I know I will appreciate the freedom to go where I want and meet friends and family so much more when this is over.