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.

Afterwords

I was blown away by the response that my eggshells rant produced last week.  That s why I have been a bit on the quiet side – I have been reading your thoughts and replies, listening and thinking.

Rather than begin another rant and repeat the same sort of things I want to just pick out some key messages that have come through for me from everything I have read and heard over the past week.

  • Thank heavens for the internet!   We are so not alone and what a dialogue we can have across the globe.
  • It is just as hard not knowing what to say as it is hearing what you don’t want to hear!
  • As much as we are united by our cancer diagnosis and share many common reactions, we are all different and the things which makes us prickle differ just as much as we differ.
  • Cancer invades the lives of those close to people who are diagnosed, as powerfully as those themselves diagnosed.  (I found this post very thought provoking – it goes further and suggests that those around us are also cancer survivors).

And a parting thought.  There are indeed silver linings and blessings which have come out of my cancer diagnosis, and I am truly thankful and appreciative of these.  However, it does not make me hate cancer any the less!

Eggshells

Now that the latest round of checks is behind me, I think I have an apology to make.  Around the time of these appointments I get so incredibly stressed. I feel as I am walking on eggshells, waiting for just the slightest pressure which might cause me to fall again into a great abyss.

However, I think that is probably nothing compared with the eggshells that people around me are having to walk on!

I confess to being supergrumpy and ultra jumpy.  I apologise wholeheartedly, but I have to say I do not think there is that much that I can do about it.  I have already said that I am grateful for these checks, but that does not make them any the less scary.

I know that it is really difficult for people to know what to say to me before these checks.  And I have had the audacity to moan ungratefully here about some of the encouraging and supportive comments I have received.  For example, I have found it difficult when people tell me not to worry, that it will be all right.  I have these checks because it is possible that it will NOT be all right.  Wishing me good luck is of course appreciated, but even that is tricky as it feels like tempting fate.

In fact, it is probably impossible to find something to say which I find suitable before these checks.  The root of the problem, however, is not so much what people say to me, but the fact that I am in this situation at all.  Indeed the problem goes right back to October 2009 when I heard those life changing words confirming that I had cancer.  At that moment of diagnosis, a sense of “comfort” is taken away.  All possibilities that there might be a non sinister explanation disappears and the thing we dread is a reality.  I certainly remember feeling a sense of disbelief which fostered attempts at denial.  This CANNOT be happening to me? I can not have cancer.  This can not be true.  In the days and weeks immediately following diagnosis and the start of treatment, I remember waking in the mornings, and for an instant had forgotten that I had cancer.  Then it would hit me, that sudden and overwhelming mix of grief, fear and disbelief crashing around me as realisation  dawned.  It reminds me somewhat of bereavement when you have moments where you can briefly forget that a loved one has gone, only to experience that shock and sadness anew alongside the awareness.

That is why I react so strongly to words of support.  Supportive words feel like platitudes, and we become supersensitive to all manner of language and expression.  I am trying to protect myself and build a barrier in case I hear words I do not want to hear at the checks.

It is reassuring to know I am not alone here.  I have been following a number of debates on Breast Cancer blogs and discussion sites devoted to the question of how we perceive ourselves.  We are given labels such as fighters, survivors, patients, brave warriors to name but a few, and we all feel passionately about these terms.  And we often disagree amongst ourselves.

Many people feel that some terms can almost be offensive.  For example, the very analogy of fighting comes in for a lot of criticism as it implies that those who are taken by cancer have somehow ”lost”, perhaps not fighting hard enough.  It implies that advance of our cancer is somehow related to not being strong enough or allowing it to take over.

I even find that the language I use and choose changes too, as does the way I feel about it.  One day I might react strongly to being described as being a fighter, while other days it might feel flattering to me!  It clearly struck a chord with me at some point, as the moniker of my blog bears witness.

Similarly, the role of attitude is credited with our prognosis.  I do have a positive attitude and approach to this wretched disease.  I like to take the proverbial **** out of cancer.  Well that what it has done to me, so fair’s fair!  It has involved me taking control over elements of my life which I feel can have a bearing on my health.  Being proactive about swimming daily, for example, or cracking inappropriate jokes at the expense of cancer.  However, I am not under any illusions that being positive will make a significant difference to whether or not the cancer beast makes a comeback.  The reality is that as much as cancer treatment has advanced, we know that it does not always succeed in containing or eradicating the cancer because it is sneaky and clever and some forms do not respond to the treatments.  Of course being positive and strong helps us in how we deal with our illness and treatment.  It can make a huge difference in a day.  However, it is most definitely NOT the same as “beating” cancer.

I personally found cancer treatment a struggle, though not necessarily a battle.  The distinction makes sense to me!  I found the treatment hard going, physically, emotionally and it without doubt took a toll.  As far as the cancer in my body was concerned though, it brought very little in the way of sign or symptom let alone something significant which I felt I was battling.  It was more like hosting a battle where one adversary was silent and invisible and the other only too evident.

If that is not contradictory and complex enough, I have to say a few words about the phenomenon  of ”celebrity cancer” which seems to behave differently to ordinary person cancer in the way it is reported in the media.  The indiscriminate nature of the illness and gruelling treatment and side effects of course belie that of course, which adds to the sensitivity around this.  I recently  read a number of news reports of another celebrity who has been undergoing treatment and happily this been successful.  Of course, that is the best news and what we all want to hear.  However, despite myself, I found that I was becoming highly irritated and even offended by the report when it referred to the cancer being “beaten”.  What particularly upset me was that the person concerned had previously been diagnosed at stage 4.  Now I just want to stress that I am quite delighted that this person’s cancer has responded to treatment and can totally identify with the relief and happiness in their family.  What I find difficult, however, is the implication that Stage 4 cancer can be “cured” rather than arrested and managed.  I don’t understand how stage 4 cancer can be “beaten”.  I know it can be managed, as a chronic illness and some of the terror of a stage 4 diagnosis is dissipated perhaps.  But how can it be beaten?  How can it be banished?  And what does that say to families who have lost a loved one?

There are two points to come out of this rant.  Firstly, this is based on reports rather than hard facts.  There is often a tenuous relationship between the two.  Sometimes not even as much as a tenuous link.  In all likelihood, therefore, my reaction is not even based on the facts.  Secondly, can you see the eggshells?  My goodness, how much did I overreact to this?

Whether or not it is an overreaction, it illustrates very clearly how sensitive this whole cancer business makes us.  Hearing that you have cancer brings a fear, confronting us with our mortality.  So it doesn’t really matter what language we use, or what people say to us because we now have this constant presence – the threat of cancer, which has been forced into our lives making us sensitive and vulnerable.

The irony is that I have such overwhelming support and I lean on that enormously.  All around me (in every sense) people are supporting me through this.  And how do I respond?  By being as prickly as a hedgehog having a very bad hair day.

No wonder folks feel they are walking on eggshells.  Cancer is making us walk on eggshells.