We are now at the autumnal equinox and the daylight is shrinking on a daily basis. Every morning two minutes are shaved from the daylight as the sun rises later, and a further two or three minutes from the end of the day. I am no mathematician but can easily see that this steals over half an hour of daylight in a week. In contrast to the spring equinox when the sun rushes to stretch the day, we feel the retreat of summer as we need to switch on lights progressively earlier. More layers are needed and the scent in the air brings a chill with the certainty of autumn and winter not far beyond. The light is softer, and lower in the sky, and the flowers start to retreat and withdraw.
The wider world and my personal world have changed so much, and yet so little. Two and a half years have passed since I closed my door as Covid threatened to intrude. And while its threat has been reduced considerably, it still lingers. It even stepped over my own doorstep in the summer despite living a sheltered and cautious existence.
Guided as ever by my carefully selected three word mantra, I have made some big decisions. With the intention to unfurl, I have completely adjusted that work life balance by stepping aside from the regularity of work and seeking to forage more to provide for my essentials. The past years have shown that we can manage differently, and with health continuing to constrain I need to make the most of, nay savour, these Voldemort years. I am moulding days and weeks to allow for a balance which favours reading, writing, and spending time outdoors when the Scottish weather permits. And reflecting. I have a rich bank of memory and experience to enjoy. Can you live vicariously through the experiences of your younger self, I wonder.
The onset of autumn months and years is characterised by this milestone that is the equinox. And this falls on the first of my cancer landmark days. The day I discovered the lump back in 2009. So it feels as if there is a synchronicity in this shift in the seasons, the shortening of the days and the ever bittersweet anniversary of my introduction to a life refashioned by cancer.
By unfurling, slowing down and refocusing I am striving to take control of my own little world in this universe of unpredictability and turbulence. And while the sun rises later and sets earlier on its march towards the winter solstice, it continues to backlight the plants and trees as they continue in their seasonal cycle. It is up to me to remember to open my eyes and see those everyday wonders which thrive around me.
When I first moved to Asia, I quickly became fascinated by the paddy fields. Terraces of glorious, shining green stretching as far as the eye could see. As the paddy started to ripen, the edgy bright green would start to deepen to a dusky yellow and laborious transplanting and thinning would make way for harvesting. But what particularly fascinated me, I am embarrassed to say, was that I could not fathom out how these fields of green could transform into the grains of rice on the shelves of shops and supermarkets. It was to take me more than one season of observation, understanding the threshing, asking questions and gathering little shoots of paddy to watch in my own home before I could unravel and understand the journey from field to rice sack and the transformation that took place. I am thankful that this was before Google was there to give me a quick answer!
While this fascination took place half a world away, it is one of those everyday wonders which happens under our noses. I have the same wonder now back in Scotland, and even in my fifth blossom season since returning I am still unravelling the mystery and magic of the everyday fruit blossom which surrounds us.
And who doesn’t love blossom? It is a sheer delight to look at, transforming the streets in shades of pinks and whites around us for a fleeting season with its exuberance and joy. But it goes so much deeper. In each tiny blossom there contains magic, hope and promise all in one. Each flower holds within it the potential to form a perfect apple, cherry, pear, plum, gooseberry, blueberry … But how many of us pause and watch as those exquisite little flowers turn into a completely different being? My curiosity has been similar to that of the rice journey, but at this stage in life, how have I missed the detail of the journey of our fruits? Each year since my return to Scotland, I have delved a little deeper and each year learned a little more.
Having discovered a blueberry bush last year, and enjoyed its produce on a daily basis while it was fruiting, I have been curious to see how these perfect berries take shape. This year the blueberry was one of the first to show little shoots of life when the wind and snow was discouraging signs of spring. And it has led the way in encouraging the rest of the blossoms with its exotic pink clusters of blueberry promises.
As the blossoms unfurl, mature and then gradually fall, I have taken the time to witness the particular path each is taking as its own fruit is nurtured. And it is such an intricate and purposeful path. I find it both comforting to see the power and precision of nature alongside shame that humankind is inflicting damage and destruction in the pursuit of power and greed.
I choose to focus my attention on the promise of hope in the form of these little blossoms and the magic they contain. As the days march forwards through spring, and these northern days lengthen, I am bearing witness to surprises as the blossoms transform and tell their stories.
Against a steely grey sky, the plum blossoms have fallen, making starry silhouettes which are busy shaping into tiny plums.
The petals are falling from the pear tree, and revealing work already underway as the stalks form into little cotton buds in the shape of minute pears. Little future pears.
The elongated blueberry blossom is losing its red colour and forming into a spherical, blushing pink mystery which will be my breakfast staple in a few weeks time.
But perhaps one of the greatest surprises has been the humble gooseberry. A traditional fruit which transports me back to my childhood with memories of gooseberry jam, crumble and fool. And one which has been overshadowed by the availability of more varieties of fruits from further afield. So I was quite astounded to follow the journey of the humble gooseberry as it formed the most sophisticated lantern of blossom with great enthusiasm. These images are taken very close up and mask the fact that these little blossoms are half the size of my pinkie nail.
And it is providing the most astonishing transformation that I have witnessed so far. The intricate and little known gooseberry blossom transforms into the tiniest, hairiest, most perfect shy gooseberry taking me back to my childhood.
Thank goodness I have decided to slow down and unfurl, otherwise I might never have discovered these unexpected happenings right under my nose.
No matter where we are in the world, there are mysteries and surprises all around us. It is up to us to choose what we use our eyes and minds for.
Where have these past two years gone? We have completed two whole journeys around the sun. The same sun which has risen on 730 mornings and set again in the evening since 13 March 2020. The very day when I closed the door on the outside world.
As the sun sinks this evening, I reflect on this day two years ago. I was on my way home from work, with my laptop and some hastily grabbed papers as I was expecting to be working from home for the following couple of weeks with Covid closing in on us. It was just over a week before the spring equinox, the sky was a translucent blue in the fading daylight as I made my way from the bus stop to my front door.
I was not long home before my phone rang. I remember that family conversation so clearly, the deep fear of the virus which was already tightening its grip around us meaning that I began my isolation a few days before the authorities formally closed our doors. That is not new, I have reflected on this before.
As I wrote in April 2020 – “I arrived home from work … having agreed that afternoon that I would work from home from then on to reduce risk while travelling to work on busy buses. I picked up a couple of items from the shop on my way home. Excellent stocking up – a jar of red pesto, a small packet of macaroni and some miso soups. I had no idea when I shut the front door, that I would not be leaving again for the foreseeable future. Family conversations that evening were frank and sobering. We talked through the risks that I faced. Age and underlying health conditions meant that I would not fare well if I contracted COVID-19. Additionally, as the pandemic took hold, the health service would be placed under extreme pressure to accommodate very ill patients. We realised at that point that I should immediately self isolate. And so, on Friday 13 March, I closed my doors to the outside world... Life has been transferred predominantly online. I have FaceTime, Zoom and Skype chats in the evening with friends, sometimes in small groups. Our Book Club and Writing Group now meet online. But even though life is continuing, it has been changed irrevocably. We don’t know when it will settle and resume and in particular, we don’t know what the new world will look like when it does settle.“
There was such uncertainty ahead. But on reflection I realise that did have some expectations. We had expectations that if we did catch Covid, then we would have some immunity in those very early days. There was a great deal of talk about vaccines taking time, but we had unquestionable confidence that we would see a vaccine at some point and that it would be the solution. I held the expectation that catching Covid would be almost certainly dire with my underlying and chronic health conditions. Another expectation was that as case numbers rose, they would surely fall as the peak of infections passed. However, the current case numbers are very high considering over two years have passed of the pandemic.
So it is strange to look back over the past two years which have both flown and dragged by, and look at how those expectations have measured up. Some have been surpassed, and some have surprised us. The vaccine has been a massive game changer, for those have access to them. While the global situation is one which is urgent and overlooked by too many, I am in that fortunate position to have had both doses, plus the booster. But aside that is the question of immunity. Not being an expert in this area, I have been shaken by the evolving realisation that immunity fades after infection, and also after the vaccines. Now we understand that the benefit of the vaccine is far more on reducing the severity of disease rather than transmission. Also, in those very early days, the variants had not appeared on our radars. Our expectations of new variants and mutations of the virus, with the unknown of how severe and transmissible these would be had yet to form.
Many of these expectations, I had not really acknowledged but they nestled in my mind. It is only when I pause at a milestone such as today, that I realise that I held so many.
When I wake tomorrow morning, on the first day of a third year since I closed my door, I will focus my expectations on the sunrises and sunsets and the spring growth in front of my eyes.
Welcome, 2022. Please be kind. Please bring health, happiness and strength across the world.
I do wonder, when we look back at the 2020s from a distance of a decade of more, whether we will be able to distinguish 2020 from 2021, and 2021 from 2022 or whether the years will all feel like a blur of covid years. I already find it difficult to work out which May or June, which lockdown, and which wave were which. Was it May this year or last that was so hot and sunny? Can it really be almost 2 years since I have been living life very differently. And the unspoken question – will life look any different this year?
Going into the new year after the wall-to-wall covid year, I am glad I have my three word mantra to distinguish the previous years. And I trust that this coming year will be characterised as much by the words which I have settled upon to guide me through whatever is thrown at us.
With the covid situation so protracted, I have found it a strange process this year to find that balance between aware of the unpredictability of times ahead, yet maintaining my focus on what is important and the priorities for the year. And the words which have come to me for 2022 are now ready to be shared. My three word mantra to guide and inspire me in the months ahead are:
Unfurl, forage and savour
As the Voldemort milestone retreats into the past (the number which cannot be said out loud, but in Scotland reaching this age gifts a bus pass), I am increasingly reminded that I do not want to spend my golden years working flat out. Moving to part time working has affirmed that, and whet my appetite for slowing down even more. My mother died on her 65th birthday and as I approach that age, I want to step off the speeding roundabout and enjoy the benefit of having worked for the past 40 years, rather than work up to my last email breath.
Finding a word which captured this sense of “slowing down” was more difficult than I expected. Decelerate is too mechanical, slow doesn’t capture enough of what I want to convey and searching through dictionaries I discovered that many of the synonyms for slowing down had negative connotations. Such as lag behind, delay, impede, stall, setback, restrain … Which was very revealing about the world we live in and the value placed on rushing and speeding through life and work. Have we learned nothing from the pandemic and shifted priorities? And that made me all the more determined to find a word which would place value on slowness.
The other dimension of slowing down which I wanted to aim towards this coming year, is that of becoming unbusy, and releasing the tension of recent months. After so long being tightly coiled, and as physical strength and capacity gradually reduces, I want to unwind in order to be able to live at a slower pace. Which brings in the perfect word – unfurl. I want to release and untighten from the stress and pressures of recent times, and slowly open like the promise of a new leaf, slowly unfurling, feeling the breeze as it reaches out towards the sun and the coming season. If I can unfurl, and embrace the rhythms of nature, this will allow a gentler, unhurried pace of life.
My second word is one which reflects an intentional approach to living, one where I consider carefully what I need, and one where I make the most of my surroundings in many senses. My second word is forage and it has meanings both very literal, and more figurative. Forage prompts me to look for wonders in front of me, under my feet and above my head. Forage tells me that exploring is a wonderful way of living and reminds me of the times when I lived in places where the produce is seasonal and dependent on weather., and when I relied on using my creativity to use what was available, rather than what I thought I wanted. Forage reminds me that there is a great deal in my surroundings and I just need to open my eyes and my mind. Forage also reminds me not to be wasteful and to use and share what I have.
In the less literal sense, forage reminds me to be observant and look out for those little treasures around me which hold so much potential to inspire creativity. And foraging is not limited to edibles, as I am surrounded by a lifetime of collectibles and memories which have stories to tell and seek a space to speak.
I look forward to discovering which paths foraging might take me on and what discoveries I might make.
My third word complements and travels comfortably alongside its two companions. As I unfurl and forage, I realise that I can enhance this if I make that effort to enjoy the slower pace and savour the simple things around me. To really savour flavours, sounds and sensations, it is important not to rush. Again, there are a wealth of interpretations from the very obvious senses of taste, and smell which we most immediately associate with savour, to the other senses. I can savour the music of birdsong by closing my eyes, and just listening. I can savour the sight of flowers welcoming bees as they go about their day’s work and I can savour memories which spring up unexpectedly by pausing and capturing them as they flitter by.
The past years have especially shown us that life can change dramatically and drastically in a heartbeat. Covid and cancer have been clear examples. And that doesn’t diminish the challenges that come with an unwelcome development, which can be overwhelming and distressing. That is completely valid. But it does mean that we can accept what is, rather than what might be or should have been. And seek to focus on aspects around us that are there to savour.
And so my three word mantra for 2022 has taken shape. Savour reminds me to embrace what we too often consider small, ordinary and insignificant and this is so much more achievable when unfurled and living at a slower pace, and foraging with an inquisitive mind.
It is time to embrace 2022 with my three words as a constant, guiding companion. May 2022 be kindly, inspiring and healthy for us all.
As the sun sets on 2021, I spend time reflecting on my three word mantra. I can always recognise the year from the three words I chose for that year, a practice which I stumbled upon a few hours before the New Year of 2010 began.
That very first three word mantra, recovery, discovery and laughter takes me back firmly to that year. The three words came so easily. It was December 2009 and I was in the thick of chemo and seeking to hold on to the prospect of healing. I recognised that leaning on innate curiosity and an overactive sense of humour would be key ways of dealing with the challenges of cancer treatment and the three words kept me focused on that mindset through 2010. When I read focus, treasure and design, I am taken immediately to 2013 on a wave of grief. Those words tell me that was the year I lost my father. Knowing at the start of 2013, that we would probably say goodbye before the year was out, very much shaped the choice of the words as well as providing strength and focus. The three words reorient, nurture and crystalize whisper “2016” in my ear, reminding me of a year that heralded enormous change. The year that saw me leaving the continent I had lived for over 15 years, the work I had loved and the country which had been home for 7 years.
And the words patience, calibration and stardust would set the tone for the year now closing, and keep my strength during what was to be a wall to wall year of Covid. That is evident in my words at this time one year ago when I wrote “Selecting three words this year brings a new dimension, knowing that the months ahead will see continued challenge as the new strains of COVID-19 and winter fragility test us to the limits. It has been strange to choose my words with COVID-19 looming large, and I have been striving to see beyond the immediacy, yet I find it impossible to ignore it… I trust that my words will carry me through any eventuality, whilst acknowledging the significant one of COVID-19 underpins a great deal.”
As we enter the final days of 2021, I have been reflecting on the year and my three words for some weeks now. This reflection is a sound basis which I find essential as I take the time and energy to consider which words will carry me forwards into 2022. The words for the coming year are shaping nicely, but in the meantime here are my thoughts on the year, and the three words that have depicted my 2021.
When we stepped into 2021, I could almost hear the collective sigh of relief as the door was closed on 2020. The first Covid vaccines had been administered and there was a sense of optimism that 2021 would be see us moving out of the pandemic. Things would surely be different. My first word, patience, however, was a lesson drawn from the previous months. I knew that so much was out of my hands and that I had to put faith in the system and trust that things would work out. I knew that I just needed to be patient and focus on what was in my control, continuing to be cautious. The winter was tough, the long dark days were exactly that and the weather was not as kind as it had been the previous spring with frosts and snows continuing well into April. By the time the longer, lighter days appeared and the chills disappeared I had had my first vaccine, with our iconic NHS Scotland blue envelopes dropping through letterboxes and inducing unexpected emotions.
But alongside the medical advances, and being in a very privileged situation here (vaccine inequity is a major issue, which merits its own discussion) there have been the inevitable mutations and variants of the virus which continue to create a dance with science. A dance of advances, side steps and retreats and the music keeps on playing. With each new chapter in the pandemic story, I have found the reminder to be patient has been essential. Of course there are days when I am sad and frustrated, but I know that I need to continue to just be patient and trust that life will become less and less dominated by Covid as we continue to move forwards.
I continue to live a very quiet, low key life and recent health challenges reinforce my own personal choice to minimise risk and exposure. I have not taken a bus further than a few miles away and mainly because of the commuting distance I have continued to work from home. I am to be enormously thankful that technology enables me to do this, but in contradiction, I have found it incredibly difficult to maintain a wise work-life balance. An important change, as been to move to working part time in the middle of the year, in order to calibrate that delicate balance. I now have two additional non working days. This has shifted the balance of my working week and now I have more free days per week than working days. Those working days seem to have stretched a little, but I know that they are followed by a very healthy break each week.
Another aspect of calibration has been possible by playing with space rather than time. My workspace has always been temporary, in between the spare bed and a blank wall, oblivious to the changing light and colours of the outside world. So the opportunity to shift things around during a recent family visit was embraced and things I had been unable to move were rapidly relocated. My desk now faces out of the window, and rather than missing nature in front of me, I find myself often distracted by the arrival of blue tits, robins and sparrows on the plum tree outside.
The sense of calibration is something I am keen to take with me into the coming year and beyond.
I have held on to the notion of stardust as we have moved through 2021, it has reminded me of the importance of seeing the light and wonder in the ordinary. Stardust sounds magical, yet we are told that “everything we are and everything in the universe and on Earth originated from stardust, and it continually floats through us even today”.
I have found the reminder that we are both reduced and elevated by the notion of being made of stardust to be paradoxically comforting and exhilarating. A reminder that we are tiny and insignificant in the planet, let alone the universe. And a reminder to look beyond the darkness and find the stardust that is within us, and in the universe.
My words have again served me well, and as with previous years, I take their essence forward with me alongside the lessons they have brought. And they pave the way for three new words to take me into the coming year, as they wait patiently to be revealed in the first hours of 2022.
As the summer days move into the past, the garden still manages to gift colour and fruit beyond expectation. and come up with continuous surprises. I was sure I must have seen all of the different flowers and plants which appear throughout the year, but the other afternoon, my eye caught sight of a colour which stood out against the warmer late summer colours. Right under the crab apple tree were some pale lilac petals, resting just like spring crocus.
My mind was immediately challenged. Why were there spring-like blooms resting under the tree? Was the planet so stressed with the way humans have interfered with climate and the seasons, that unseasonal temperatures had forced a a bloom of spring bulbs?
Thankfully, these times do provide answers at our fingertips, and I was quickly able to discover that these delicate little flowers are an autumn crocus. I had no idea there was such a flower, never mind that it was growing beneath my gaze. It is also known as meadow saffron, mystery and fall crocus.
These delicate flowers bloomed for but a few days before wilting and disappearing as subtly as they had appeared. I must have missed them last year. It is too easy to miss those tiny wonders and this is a reminder how important it is to keep our eyes open, even when we think there is nothing new to see.
The other evening I was readying to go to bed, when my eye caught sight of a deep orange colour low in the sky. Not long after the sun had set, the waxing moon was following in its own path towards moonset. The warm colours of the sun reflected ever more intensely as the moon sank in the sky. I was mesmerised and stood on my doorstep in the warm summer air. Of course my camera was not far away.
I am not sure how long I lingered there, taking time to breathe in the temperate air and watch the moon sink, trying to capture the magical colours. I have a bridge camera which provides a phenomenal zoom but without the confusion that my old SLR camera had and there are now many images on my own personal memory card as well as that of the camera.
In Scotland, summer days stretch and lengthen through to the summer solstice. When the days are at their longest, the light never truly fades and the sky is a translucent deep blue in the deep of the night. By 3 o’clock in the morning the sky is already preparing for the day and light long before the sun appears on the horizon. In the evening it sets around 10 o’clock but again the light lingers for a good while.
Already the days are shortening, and in a little over a month since the summer solstice, there is a full hour less of daylight. At this time of the year, the sun seems to speed up on its southerly journey and we reflect “ah, the nights are drawing in” as we acknowledge the distant but inevitable shorter days as the year moves towards the winter solstice.
Those days continue to pass, and although there is a lightness as the outside world changes, Covid is still very much in the air. And my calendar tells me that 500 days have now passed since that day in March 2020 when my own life changed. 500 days and when I wake tomorrow, 500 nights since I closed the door in the March chill of 2020. ~And while much has changed, much is still very much the same.
I am enormously thankful to have had both doses of the vaccine. I am basking in the long light and at the moment, warm, days of summer and I am luxuriating in fresh blueberries from the garden on my yoghurt in the morning. But I have still not been on a train or bus for any distance, and apart from an unexpected and stressful set of checks in the breast clinic in Edinburgh in January, I have not visited the city in those 500 days.
And nor do I foresee any great changes in my immediate plans. I am comfortable and settled in my space, but most of all, feel safe here. I would love to have people round and not be weather dependent, and I would love to plan a break. But the time is not right yet. I know that I am well protected, but I also know that I am not completely protected from Covid. And I do not want to be one of the statistics still featured on a daily basis if I can possibly avoid it. As I have done so for the past 500 days. But the more pressing reason for me is that I am acutely aware that every new infection is an opportunity for mutation of the virus as it strives to find ways to ensure its own survival. I do not want to give it any more chances, so I will continue to be very measured in how I live my life for the time being.
I find myself still in a strange place. Life goes on, the days pass, there are new developments in the behaviour and effects of the virus, scientific progress and society’s response. Yet, we are still adapting and reacting. Planning is fraught with risks and has to be packed with all manner of contingency.
Each of us is finding our feet in this shaky new ground, and this differs on our own situations, our thresholds of comfort and our own risk assessments. I know where my own boundaries lie and I know that they are cautious for the reasons I stated. Avoiding exposure to risk as far as possible for my own health as well as giving the virus as little opportunity as possible to mutate. I don’t impose my views and actions on others, and have truly valued the fact that my cautious take is respected where those differ.
As I stood on my doorstep the other night watching the moon set, I was reminded of my three words for 2021 – patience, calibration and stardust. How apt they have proven so far. In those moments, my mind was stilled by the sight of the moon. More agitated thoughts of the day faded into the background. I might not have ventured far from my doorstep in 500 days, but I am reminded that there is often a great deal to be experienced in and from that very place.
A year ago today, on 13 March, my world shifted abruptly. I arrived home from work and after emotional phone calls with close ones it was clear that I should close my door on the outside world. For many weeks I spoke with people almost exclusively on a screen with occasional conversations with real people through a closed window as they shivered outside after dropping off essentials on my doorstep. Often without being asked.
Today marks a full year now of living in this limbo of self isolation. Even when the situation was much improved in the summer, I remained very cautious and during the year have only been twice inside a café and once inside a carefully spaced restaurant. Thank goodness for those warm, light days and friendly visitors who were not offended that they were not allowed over the threshold except for a hasty visit to the bathroom accompanied by disinfectant wipes.
Then on 23 February I received my blue envelope. My Blue Letter Day. My blue envelope contained that distinctive sign of promise and hope – my first COVID-19 Vaccine appointment. It is hard to describe the emotion when that envelope appears on the doormat, to the postie’s footsteps retreating down the path. An involuntary sob, ripping open the envelope and relief that the appointment is only a week away and at a centre within walking distance. Slight concern that there is a diary clash but not impossible to work around with the cooperation of others. And then it is in the diary. A week of low level anxiety at tales of cancelled appointments due to supply delays and then finally the day of the vaccine itself. Wednesday 3 March. A very smooth and personal process and in no time I am on the other side of a very significant point in the year’s milestones. I have had my first dose of vaccine and am leaving the building breathing already slightly easier, tears rolling down my face. And the promise of the second dose within 12 weeks. I step out into the world through the exit only for those who have been vaccinated, already changed from the person who entered the building.
This is the most significant step for me and many others in moving forward. And while I am incredibly thankful, I know that I am among the very fortunate and wish nothing less for everyone else across the world.
And my gratitude and privilege brings with it internal conflict. I question that sense of entitlement that I realise I have quietly developed over the decades. There is so much I have become used to, and feel some form of entitlement to. Travel, holidays and short breaks, the ability to meet up with friends a bus or train journey away, being able simply to sit in a café, drinking tea and taking in the surroundings. This has been a year of contemplation and acceptance of very changed expectations. And a sad frustration at how COVID-19 has further deepened gaping inequities.
We have indeed come far over the year, but we continue to live under considerable restriction. We have been under continued lockdown since the end of the year. And although the statistics of people newly diagnosed are vastly reduced from the dark winter wave of the virus, we still have far to go. It will be some time before many of the daily activities we once took for granted will again be possible. It will be some time before I can come cautiously out of self isolation and I realise that I will always be on guard and ready to close my door again.
A full year on, yet my door is still not open and I am still self isolating. However, that door is no longer bolted shut and the windows tightly closed. As we approach the vernal equinox and the day that the clocks move forward to summer time, my door is now slightly ajar. Gradually I will be to open it further and gently step back into the world and feel the breeze on my face. Not the same world, and not the same me. But through the door nonetheless.
As I write this the snow still lies fairly deep outside, especially on the northern side of my home where the low winter sun does not yet reach ground level. The snow drops are struggling to push their way up through the snow and show their faces before the next snows fall. The winter has been a tough one with more snow than usual and the shadows cast by COVID-19 often feeling dark.
Today marks exactly 11 months, that is 337 whole days since I closed the door to keep Covid out and entered this new and different world. As we move through February, I feel the days gradually stretching and welcome those promises of spring in the garden just like I did 11 months ago. While we are still under lockdown, there are changes. The vaccine rollout and hopefully my own appointment perhaps only a few weeks away now? New and improved treatments making Covid a little less feared. Relative longevity of the virus and illness brings greater research and analysis which means we understand more. While I might not be sure when I can venture further, it feels within touching distance, very unlike the start of this pandemic.
Yesterday, the eve of this 11 month anniversary was a day like most others. So I was surprised when there was a knock at the door. It was the Postie with an intriguing package marked ‘fragile’. I was puzzled as I had not ordered anything and I had no idea what it was. I wondered if I might have ordered myself a treat and forgotten? This happens occasionally with books, but not with other items.
I ripped it open, bursting with curiosity and not a lot of the patience which I am meant to be practising this year. Then I noticed a tiny misspelling of my name on the box. I might be forgetful, but I do know how to spell my own name so this was a helpful clue that this was not from myself!
Inside the package I discovered a classy gift box containing some Very Posh and Luxurious Scented Candles. Someone who knows me well had sent this. I hunted in the package and the gift box itself but there was no clue of who had organised this. There was, however, a card from the company they came from with website details and a Glasgow number. I knew that it was highly unlikely that the company would tell me who had ordered the good, but unable to think of any other option I dialled the number. The call was answered by a dad rescuing the receiver from his daughter, and so I asked if I had reached the right number and that was the candle company. It was indeed, a blend of home schooling and running a company in Covid times. I explained that I had received a gift, was rather embarrassed that I didn’t know who it was from and wondered if they could tell me. Not expecting for a minute that they could.
“Was it a gift box”? he asked. I confirmed that it was.
“Aw right, that was ‘R’ ” he told me. My son. (Or at least his initial, just to protect anonymity 😉 )
It turns out that the owner of the company is a pal of my son and he runs this business along with his wife. They are a small local business and like so many have adapted to creative and flexible ways of operating. Together with my son they had brought a ray of sunshine to my day, the eve of the eleven months of isolation. An act of kindness and thoughtfulness reaching more than one.
This was intended as a reminder that brighter days are indeed ahead and that although we might be in the same place, we are in a very different place too. I have so much to be thankful for.
As the sun rose on this first day of 2021, I could almost hear a collective sigh of relief as 2020 moved into our past. For sure this has been a year that none of us will forget and one that we will remember with a mix of emotions. A year which shocked us to the core, exposing the world’s vulnerabilities and inequalities while bringing countless examples of dedication, selflessness and incredible courage amidst the destruction of COVID-19
When I selected my three words a year ago, I had no inkling of what 2020 would bring and the very different lives we would be leading throughout the year. On Hogmanay last year, I landed in Edinburgh after a a few days visiting Prague, a dream which I had held for decades. I would bring in the New Year in my new home in Scotland. Little did I know that I would spend every single night in my new home since then, a whole uninterrupted year under the same roof.
In October I reflected on the words I selected a year ago, oblivious to what lay ahead. I was particularly taken to read my thoughts as the year started:
“We all have light in us that shines, and we all have the potential to make things glisten. This encourages me to be creative, solution focused and optimistic, and to keep my eyes open for those tiny, extraordinary moments we can miss when our minds and thoughts are dark”.
How important that was to be as we entered isolation and lockdown in March, and I focused in especially on new priorities, and taking delight in the new discoveries which the passing seasons gifted in my garden. The fact that the words proved to be so eerily apt, was an affirmation of this practice of choosing a three word mantra.
Selecting three words this year brings a new dimension, knowing that the months ahead will see continued challenge as the new strains of COVID-19 and winter fragility test us to the limits. It has been strange to choose my words with COVID-19 looming large, and I have been striving to see beyond the immediacy yet I find it impossible to ignore it. The bigger picture sees COVID-19 very much embedded in it.
I trust that my words will carry me through any eventuality, whilst acknowledging the significant one of COVID-19 underpins a great deal. As always, there has been a great deal of thought and deliberation over several weeks, with numerous variations being tried and tasted as this mantra has taken its final shape. And now, my three words are ready to share. The three words to guide and protect me through 2021 are:
Patience, calibration and stardust
My first word is patience. This reminds me that a great deal is out of our hands, yet we have to take charge of how we handle what happens to us. Similar to that cancer diagnosis of 2009, when I quickly realised that while I could not control the diagnosis and its implications, there were many options open to me in how I responded. We need continued patience in these covid times as solutions and improvement take time to reach the wider community. We have been living in isolation and fear for months already, and we need to be patient as medical science brings solutions to the most vulnerable first and gradually reaches more widely.
While this is not purely about covid and is much more widely applicable, it is hard to see beyond this. Patience brings with it the suggestion of kindness and respect. We have been living in a protracted crisis and this has brought out the best and worst in us. This is challenging us in ways we could not have imagined and many of us are struggling. The magnitude of this pandemic means that it is hard to lean on others as we know they are also being tested to the limits of their resilience. So we need to be patient with each other, kind to each other and respectful. And in particular we need to be patient and kind to ourselves.
I am again reminded that as I face new and different challenges, I need to let go of that urge to have all the answers to hand. These months have tested my health and I need to be patient as answers and, hopefully, solutions are identified. I need to be guided by the natural world on my doorstep and learn how to be patient.
My second word is calibration and is also brought to the surface by the covid context. Like many others I am highly appreciative that I have my own safe space, and I have been able to continue working. However, this new predominantly online world has brought a contradiction. Thanks to Zoom and other platforms, we have been able to carry on with most of our tasks and activities both professionally and personally. My book group and writing group soon moved online, and were critical to my mental well-being particularly during the early months of isolation. And indeed, there were added bonuses that were only possible online. Our book group were able to invite the writers and translators of some of the books we were reading – so much easier to ask an author to pop into a Zoom call for half an hour from several hundred miles away.
Gradually though, I have found that many hours online, initially in an unsuitable space (the kitchen) brought aches, pains and a weariness that saw a shift in balance. I am not alone in finding it hard to join an online group in the evening after a day of Zooming. I found myself increasingly Zoom-scunnered (not a word I want to take into 2021) and creative activities, especially writing, have suffered.
Calibration will remind me to keep a close eye on maintaining a healthy balance and fine-tuning regularly to ensure that the wires do not snap if they become too taut. I am eager to retain this renewed sense of what matters most and embrace those everyday, simple treasures. This year has shown us how fragile we are, as well as how strong we are.
I have long found the expression “we are all made of stardust” to be intriguing and I have never really sought to properly understand it. I just hold on to that wonderful idea that we are all somehow magical and other-worldly. For some reason, I have kept returning to this word as I have been shaping my three word mantra. And that has entailed trying to find out what it actually means. Happily, Professor Google has enlightened me and explains the detail in this article, and notes in particular that:
“most of the material that we’re made of comes out of dying stars, or stars that died in explosions. And those stellar explosions continue. We have stuff in us as old as the universe, and then some stuff that landed here maybe only a hundred years ago. And all of that mixes in our bodies.”
Being made of stardust both reduces and elevates us. It reminds us that we are very much part of the natural order. This is an important equaliser as we are all composed of the same matter. Yet it also makes us feel special, each of us is a star in our own right.
We know that the stars become visible once the sky darkens and gazing into the night sky is hypnotizing. Covid may have brought a great deal of darkness, yet we do not have to look far to see a universe full of stars. As we move forward into 2021, stardust reminds me to see beyond the darkness and to delve deep to find that stardust that we are made from. It is in each of us. As we look up at the night sky, we are reminded that we are tiny and insignificant in the universe and that nature is incredibly powerful. My mantra will remind me that each of us is unique and extraordinary, yet ordinary. Consistently contradictory. And we dwell in a shared universe.
Now my three words are in place, and I am ready to move forward into 2021, with patience, calibration and stardust in and at my heart. May the year be kinder to us all.