From My Doorstep

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 2021patience, 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.

Slightly Ajar

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.

Eleven months of living differently

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.

Stepping gently into 2021 with three little words

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

Patience

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.

Calibration

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.

Stardust

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.

The promise of spring, a sign of hope in the snow

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.

Reflections and glistenings

Each year since the start of 2010, I have found the practice of selecting a three-word mantra to be one which grounds and guides me through the coming year. This mantra accompanies me as the months pass, it reminds me of the priorities which I had seen as key for the year ahead and keeps me on track. As we now move well into the final quarter of this especially strange year, I am minded to reflect on my three words for 2020. Words which were chosen carefully, without any inkling of the times ahead. And words which now feel to be eerily apt.

I can still see the expression of disbelief when I described the world before the internet to my grandchildren a couple of years ago. Their faces displaying complete bewilderment. And as for myself, I too find it hard to remember having to search for information, in dictionaries and encyclopedias. Waiting for libraries to open for reference books, poetry quotes and other sources of facts and clarification. Back then, booking tickets and hotels on the phone or by post, and physically going into the bank on a regular basis were the way things were done. Now there has been this entity called the internet in most of our lives for less than half of my lifetime but it is hard to recall what it was really like before it became such an integral part of our lives. When we first got email addresses they looked odd in their lower case formats. Often we would have to share the internet connection and take it turns every day or so to access our emails. Then, when technology became more accessible, we had modems which connected us at home, through twanging phone lines which disconnected our phones while we spent short bursts of time online. How quickly we forget what it was really like.

When I think back to the start of 2020, I am not sure I had even heard of coronavirus. Those little snippets of news reporting that a new virus had appeared in Wuhan were yet to register in our consciousness. Far away, distant in miles, time zones and worlds. And although Asia was very familiar to me, this faraway illness and images of a deserted city seemed unreal and almost fictional. How quickly that was to change.

As the situation in Wuhan was intensifying, the three word mantra which I had chosen for 2020 had formed and was whispering in my ear. “Still, dwell and glisten”, it encouraged me.  When I went abruptly into isolation in mid-March, life did physically come to a standstill. While I was no longer venturing any further than the garden gate to put out the bin and had truly stilled, my mind had not. Anxiety dreams, shock at the impact of the pandemic and a major shift to a completely ‘work from home’ modality meant that my mind was in overdrive. Such an irony as the intent of the word “still” was to motivate me to pause, reflect and settle in my new space. While my mind has been more difficult to “still” I have found time and intent to meditate. and complemented this with a fascination in watching the garden grow around me. This has motivated me to pause and capture this in words and photographs. There is so much that I would have missed had I been living my pre-pandemic non-isolated life.

My second word was “dwell” and intended to remind and encourage me to make my little place a home, fixing the many tasks which need to be done and getting to know the community I had chosen. I had been working my way through those tasks, month by month, and hoping that many would be completed as the end of the year approached. I had become involved with the local writing group and other community organisations and with the lighter evenings arriving, I was looking forward to getting to know neighbours. Isolation intensified the focus of my second word. Being in total self-isolation meant that I was now dwelling completely in my new space, working from the kitchen table with my laptop at the wrong height and using a funky chair in bright and fun kitenge fabric from Rwanda. I was able to spend lunchtimes in the garden, and out of the corner of my eye I could see the hedge growing rapidly while on Zoom calls. And the more the situation continued and we normalised this strange new life, the more I was thankful that the timing of COVID-19’s arrival came after my move here. That I was able to dwell in a peaceful space, surrounded by reminders gathered on my path here. This word is central to my 2020 mantra, and central to maintaining a sense of being grounded through these months.

My third word is “glisten”. It arrived as a late surprise, when I was trying to decide between two other words with similar meanings (enlighten and illuminate). So often when I am selecting my three words, one comes along unexpectedly, and I wonder where it was hiding. Glisten was perfect as I started 2020. It was simple but extraordinary, and required an interaction and cooperation. As I revisit those words which I wrote as the sun was setting on 2019, in those long ago pre-COVID-19 days, I find them intensely resonant.

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.

As autumn progresses, and the northern winter approaches I feel the need to hold on to these words. The situation has been worsening over the past weeks and we know that this winter will have dark moments. More than ever, there is a need to look for glistenings of hope all around us, like raindrops gently held on the leaf of ladies’s mantle, and where we can, shine a little light to cause a glistening.

One hundred more days

A ladybird shelters on a raspberry leaf, before the rain comes.

Words have been hesitant on this space, for one hundred more days it seems. One hundred days passed by in June. Long, light, warm days where we could slowly connect in outside, safe spaces. The summer breezes softly shifted the raw edges of fear, placing anxiety a little to the side just slightly out of focus for many of us. And as midsummer has retreated slowly into the distance, somehow another hundred days have passed. Two hundred days since that Friday evening in mid March when I closed my door on the world I knew. Two hundred days in this new isolated living.

I am not quire sure where those days have gone. But in that time the fruits have grown, ripened and mostly been eaten, baked or frozen to bring reminders of sunshine in the coming winter months. The autumnal equinox slipped quietly past us last week and the light fades from the sky three minutes earlier each day. There is a chill in the air in the mornings, and the leaves on the trees are taking on warm colours as they ready to wither and drop.

We know that the coming northern winter will bring a darkness which is not just seen in the reduced daylight, but will be accompanied by a sense of nervousness and caution. As outside spaces become less welcoming and the prevalence of illness increases, our connection with others reduces. It is time to snuggle in and find ways of keeping our spirits warm.

As the days have marched on through this strange year, I have sought and found reassurance in the patterns of nature. The little cotton buds on the pear tree have formed into confident, blushing pears. Raspberries have generously formed week after week, finding their way into breakfasts, jams and the occasional glass of prosecco. More plums than I have ever seen, have formed from those tiny little promises and been transformed into pies and plum jam. The bees have continued their work untroubled by talk of the pandemic.

Being the first year in this new garden, there have been many surprises as blooms and colours have appeared. The greatest secret was held closely by the plum tree at the front. Those little plums were so slow to ripen, remaining hard to the touch so I brought a couple inside to see if they might ripen more quickly. A few days later, with no noticeable change, I bit into one. To discover that it was not a plum at all, but a mischievous tiny red apple in a very convincing disguise.

These little plums held a surprise for me
On close inspection – they are tiny, deep red apples.

Those patterns of nature continue, and the birds are the birds are gathering in preparation for their seasonal journey southwards. Lights are switched on a little earlier each day and soon it will be dark before the work day has finished.

We know that the days and weeks ahead will bring dark moments for many of us. Yet, we also know that the days will continue onwards. Every new sunrise and sunset, taking us towards a new season of regrowth and brighter, sunnier days. And as we move ever forwards, I am reminded that this too shall pass. We need to live in these days, not to wish them away, but to bring our own warmth and hope while we do wish for healthier, less precarious times.

The season transitions, leaves falling on the still green grass, as a bee gathers late season pollen.

One Hundred Days

Just a few days before the spring equinox and a couple of days shy of the Ides of March, I took this picture on the way home from work. The bare branches of the trees silhouetted against the deep blue evening in that half light after the sun has rested for the day, just as darkness begins to settle. A northern sky which held the promise of spring and lightening, lengthening days ahead, cloaked with the unseen threat of COVID-19.

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As I made my way homewards, I passed the shop, the houses and my neighbours, unknowingly, for what would be the last time in many days. Indeed, now one hundred days, and still counting.

This was the evening I took my regular journey home from work, knowing that the world was changing rapidly and drawing in around us. Not knowing that this would be the start of a strange and surreal period of lengthy isolation. That evening saw the long and emotional conversation with family which drew the inevitable conclusion that I would close my door on the outside world for the foreseeable future, if I wanted to stay safe from the hold which the virus was taking around us. That evening I captured this image of what I thought was an everyday moment, my last photo before everything changed.

I had been anticipating those longer evenings, and the days when I would arrive home from work in daylight. I had moved into my new home as autumn turned into winter, a few days after the autumnal equinox, as the days smartly shorten towards those long, dark days of Scottish winter. Six months later, I knew that I would soon be able to enjoy daylight time at home in the evening after the day at work.

But that certainty was lost in the new uncertainty that was isolation and lockdown.

It has been replaced with another certainty though, one which I hold on to tightly. While humankind has spun out of control in the most developed of contexts, nature has taken a firmer grip to remind us that we are guests on this earth. Around ten days into isolation, the weather brightened and I ventured out into my garden. My curiosity was piqued by a blaze of blue colour beneath a fruit tree. The beauty of newly moving into a home with a garden is that the coming year and seasons will bring surprises. Snowdrops and daffodils had welcomed me home as the year started, but hidden in weekday darkness I had missed much of their presence. This blueness was to be my first garden surprise, as the season continued to march forward, while humankind stood still, holding its breath and counting the R number.

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I am still not quite sure what these little blue heralds of hope were, my first excited thought as I spotted them at a distance was that they might be bluebells. I have always wished for a garden with bluebells. As they took their shape, they continued to puzzle me and I still don’t know exactly what they were. Perhaps some unusual crocus or another early spring flower. But not bluebells. For bluebells were starting to sprout elsewhere in the garden fulfilling my bluebell dreams.

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Gradually as the days determinedly lengthened, the outline of spindly branches on the trees softened and little growths appeared. Tiny blossom buds were forming, in shades of white and pink .Little promises of hope and regeneration.

I have always dreamed of a blossoming tree in my own garden. My dreams were taking life in front of my eyes.

The labours of an elderly woman over many years in a garden have gifted to me, a season of colour, surprise and even flavour.

Have you ever wondered how blossoms transform into fruits? I have followed the journey of these miracles over the past weeks, fascinated. As the petals gradually fell, I could see tiny promises form in the stalks. Baby pears the size of cotton buds, a cheeky miniature apple the size of a marble,

Through May and into June, the fruits continue to develop and mature. The young, tiny pears are slowly growing, cherries begin to ripen, delicate plums and apples take shape. Gooseberries appear. Gooseberries. I had forgotten about gooseberries, once a staple Scottish summer fruit, now rarely seen as more exotic imports take over popularity. I seem to have the makings of an orchard. I didn’t know I dreamed of having fruit trees in my garden, but my happiness suggests that secretly I did.

The surprises keep catching me. unawares. Just the other day I spotted a glimpse of red through the green foliage. The green berries which had been forming on the raspberry bushes, have been ripening. Smatterings of red appeared as I approached the bushes. The raspberries are quietly and studiously sweetening and maturing.

This is Day One Hundred, the summer solstice, a solar eclipse far over the horizon in the southern sphere and the seasons moving steadily forward as the planet continues to journey around the sun.

This is a day I could not have imagined back in March when I headed home, pausing to take a photograph of a wintry branches silhouetted against a changing sky. While the everyday activities we took for granted are paused, what more powerful reminder that we are guests on a moving, breathing earth.

This morning, my one hundredth morning in isolation, I enjoyed a handful of those fresh raspberries with my breakfast. Yoghurt streaked vibrant red, carrying a taste of childhood summers. I relish the flavour as much as I embrace the promise of hope and recovery that those raspberries have brought to me.

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Opening Up

Every time I think that the wild welsh poppies in my garden have finished blooming, I spot another blaze of orange, and more little buds shyly opening up. Just a few more days of colour, these persistent little poppies tell me as they gradually fade, and their petals fall. And the cycle continues, as I spot another few buds, the orange crumpled colour pushing the bud open for tomorrow’s bloom

Opening up crop

All the while, discussions continue and changes are announced of a wider opening up. Doors are opening, faces peeping out and families making tentative plans to gather. At an appropriate distance, and in small numbers. The world which closed so abruptly more than two months ago is slowly starting to open up, gingerly and not so gingerly.

I have mixed feelings about the opening up of the world, and the easing of lockdown. I am not ready. And I feel embarrassed to admit it. When I went into isolation it was sudden, and complete. Not a soul has been in my home, and my face to face interactions with other humans have been few and on my turf quite literally. Food is delivered on my doorstep, with my door closed. Anything which has been touched by the hands of another is subjected to careful sanitising and its own period of isolation. Conversations over the fence rely on warmth of words to compensate for physical closeness. Closeness and warmth on screens and blinking phones have strengthened and sustained. I have become surprisingly present in this new reality. Throughout these past weeks, I have become less fearful as I have built this safety shield around me. I find that I am not ready to dismantle it and allow the danger which is still lurking in invisibility to contaminate my safe space.

I am not officially shielding. I did not receive a nine-page letter which advised me to stay at home for 12 weeks and avoid contact with others. However, the public health announcements which I now know by heart speak directly to me and those who have health issues. Issues which make us highly vulnerable and at risk of very severe illness if we were to become infected with the virus. My shielding might not have been official, but it has been faithful.

I know that I am not ready to open up until I know how the pandemic responds to this easing of lockdown. This doesn’t mean that I find isolation easy. It means that my fear of the virus is greater than my struggles with isolation. I do not want to take steps which could place me at risk. Even if that risk is very low, the effect of the virus is no less dangerous. That is my rationale and emotionale.

I know many others who feel differently, and who are anxious to start opening up their lives and making those baby steps towards that elusive new reality. It is heart-warming to see plans announced and pictures of small gatherings, tears and smiles. Photographs and videos on social media of this new found freedom sing with the happiness of opening up.

Others are making bolder, nay riskier, step. Steps which cause intakes of breath, tutterings and mutterings. Steps which strike fear into the hearts of the cautious souls who are afraid of what cannot be seen.

None of us can truly understand what it has been like for others as we have experienced isolation and lockdown. For most of us, it has been emotionally demanding, tears appearing unexpectedly and inappropriately. Reactions disproportionate to their cause. For many, a difficult domestic situation suddenly became a dangerous one in precarious situation. Reports of domestic violence increased drastically. None of knows what is happening behind the closed doors of others. And none of us knows, how each of us feels about the uncertainty of the future as the lockdown starts to ease.

And so, while I can, I would like to open up at the pace which works for me. I don’t want to burst into colour suddenly. I am happy to peep out through the opening bud and just see how the land lies.

Once I feel that the outside is a place I feel safe, I will push through and step back into the world. But until I reach that point of confidence, I will stay in my safe haven, watching with joy as those who do feel ready, are taking those steps.

Corona Times – learning a new language

Learn a new language while you are in lockdown, they said. Or how to play an instrument. Make the most of this gift of time. Learn some new skill. Bake sourdough or become a yogi. Read those books lying covered with dust on your shelves. Zoom your friends and family. Yes Zoom is a thing, and the world now functions on this new thing. Stay up till midnight for three nights running to try to secure a Tesco delivery slot. Weep each time you fail.

It seems I have been learning a new language. Some words I had not heard of ,or expressions made up from a string of known words forming to create a new expressions which have suddenly taken a very clear and specific meaning. Not a foreign language, the words are already familiar. The meaning, however, is not. This is the language of Corona, incomprehensible before spring 2020. Now it is the basis of most of our conversations.

covid wordcloud

I imagine parallel conversations pre and during the corona weeks. Pre Corona, I imagine to be something like this …

Pre Corona – Have you been furloughed?

Pre corona response – blank stare. Is this an agricultural expression? Do I look as if I have been furloughed? Am I covered in mud?

 

Pre Corona – Our aim is to flatten the curve.

Response – blank stare. What curve? Is there a bump in the road?

 

Pre Corona – Are you shielding?

Response – guilty expression. How do they know I am hiding an escaped bank robber under the stairs?

 

Pre Corona – You need to self isolate.

Response – confused expression. What have I done wrong? What on earth do you mean by that? Isolate myself?

 

Pre Corona – social distancing must be observed.

Response – utter bewilderment. How can distancing be social? Is it not anti-social? Have I said something offensive? What does it even mean?

 

It is fascinating that society morphs rapidly to adapt to the threat which the pandemic has thrown on to many of us. We have quickly become used to a life which finds us speaking to people on screens rather in person and where our homes become places where we cannot even invite a close friend in for tea. While it is strange, we have become oddly accustomed to very different conventions even if they don’t quite sit comfortably. The rapid shift in language is another sign of resilience and adaptation of humankind as our expressions and vocabulary are shaped for the current context. A context which is new, sudden and which turns many longstanding conventions on their heads. It is an example of how we adapt to cope with a new, urgent situation.

Only a few short weeks into Corona times, we no longer blink when informed that certain activities will be permitted as long as we maintain social distance. We don’t need to ask what that means, it is solidly in our mindset. Social distance – 2 metres, the size of a double bed, or two shopping trolleys end to end, or an adult kangaroo. We are thankful that the furlough scheme is extended and understand its importance in protecting employees and the economy while we fear the eventual cost to society. We no longer think of muddy fields.

I do wonder how our vocabulary and language will be changed by this sudden influx of new vocabulary and very specific expressions and usage. Language does evolve and develop naturally, as we see when we hear the announcement of the ‘new words’ of the year which are added to the dictionaries. I will be fascinated to see how this turn of events will be reflected in new turns of phrase in the longer term.

May flowers

In the meantime, don’t worry about learning a new skill. You have already learned a new language. Focus on staying safe and staying well. And remember to wash your hands.

Forty days and forty nights

Today marks my fortieth day in isolation. Last night, my fortieth night, a night which saw me visited by disturbing and unusually violent dreams. It is some time since dreams of conflict and air raids have come to me, but last night I lived through serial dreaming of life-threatening attacks, fleeing and sheer terror. I was transported back to my humanitarian work in conflicts in South Asia and the deep basic fear living in such violent times. My recent anxiety dreams were humorous little vignettes in comparison.

I find myself divided. I can rationalise this experience and how my mind is dealing with the scale and uncertainty of such an unprecedented situation. I know and understand that our mental wellbeing is being tested to the very ends of its capacity. I know I have techniques at my fingertips such as meditation, taking control of what I can, escapist reading and when all else fails, the most tasteless of TV viewing. But where the conscious mind strives to stay dominant, the sub conscious and emotional side rise up when least expected and before I know it, I find myself tearful and fearful. I know it is a natural response, I know it is valid. And I know it will pass. Sooner or not so sooner.

What I am struggling with, is how to balance the ability to understand and rationalise the psychological process that I am going through, in the company of very many, with this desertion of my resilience and how that actually makes me feel. I know how I should feel. Thankful, resilient, safe and reasonably well. And know how I do feel. Frightened, alone, distraught and tearful. I am not looking for advice or sympathy. I am purely looking for this to pass, and for this emotional fragility to be validated. It’s ok to not be ok.

I do want to emphasise that it is not so much the isolation, and being on my own that is troubling me at the moment. Though I do not deny that it is odd and disconcerting not being able to go out at all and interact with people in so many walks of daily life. No, it is more that I have no idea when this will end, and what the broader future looks like. So much is impossible to predict while the pandemic is in these early days. Big questions trouble me. The economic shakeout, especially for someone of my age; the health scenario and the prospect of being unable to go about daily life again for some considerable time, especially for those with age and underlying health conditions, again, again like myself; the shock that this will place on society in broader terms as the fingers of this virus dig into already existing divides in our communities; the fact that this is the first truly global emergency I have ever seen, there is no ‘outside help’ to rescue us. We will not see a return to the way things were, but gradually life will settle into its new normality. I just cannot envisage what on earth that might look like and the changes that we will need to adapt to.

I strive to see past this, despite its enormity, and keep a focus on nature and growth around me. Some days it works better than others.

buzzy

Forty days and forty nights, this is not a long time but nor is it insignificant. I cannot think of another time of life when I have been totally isolated for more than a few days or a couple of weeks. And quite why this emotional heaviness has come at this time, is a mystery. All I do know, is that this is real and I find myself struggling. But I also have a conviction that this too shall pass, and for now it is ok not to be ok.

None of us is truly alone.