I’m not ready yet.

I don’t get all this talk of returning to normal. The excitement, the anticipation, the clear expectations other seem to have: where do they come from? Where did they get the time and the space and the hope to feel these feelings?

A colourful line of cloth facemasks drying on the washing line.
Facemasks courtesy of the generosity of parishioners and the brilliance of Grimes Emporium…

There are things that I am looking forward to, of course. Teaching all day without needing a mask is one. Having the option of different ways to exhaust our children’s energy and enthusiasm – trampoline parks, museums, occupied play areas – is another. Seeing new places, where they speak new languages, eat interesting food and reliably have sun, is definitely a third. But these things, tempting though they are, are not enough to make me feel ready for an open and unrestricted return to the world.

I can’t remember Life Before. I know that sounds overly dramatic, and of course it’s not entirely, literally, true, but it is an emotional truth. Every drop of my essence in what feels like forever has been focused purely on survival. Not surviving The Plague – that, weird though it probably seems, hasn’t touched my nerve centres. If we get it we get it and we deal with it then; and so far, praise God, we haven’t had to face it. So what has drained me of my memory, my energy? What have I been surviving? The endless monotony of everything being required with no remission and no relief. Knowing that if it is not done by me it will not be done at all, and knowing that It Not Happening will harm all those around me more than I am willing to risk. Knowing there is no respite at home; no comprehension at work; and no stopping in sight. I try to list specifics for those not in this boat. They smile faintly and nod: they are in this storm with me, after all, and don’t I know how lucky, how privileged I am, to have a home, and a job, and physical contact with those I love? So I add guilt to my list of everything I am surviving, because I do know these things, and I do recognise my privilege, and that just makes it more impossible to put into words why this has been So Damn Hard.

Lockdown, locking in our minds as well as our bodies, has become so familiar it feels gloriously safe. It reduces the number of decisions that need to be made to the extent that even my brain-fogged mind can handle them. It gives an easy answer to every request I don’t agree with: another plastic toy, you say? Sorry, no non-essential shopping. Hug from an acquaintance, from a student, from someone who seems to think personal space just doesn’t apply to them? Not a chance. (Oh, the inexpressible relief of finally having my rejection of these cultural intimacies understood and accepted with a single look.) Feeling lonely, swamped by awareness of how little we see others outside our nuclear family; or colleagues, in work time? Everyone else is noticing the same, so we get to feel more unified with our Facebook connections in our mutual isolation than we ever did in free life.

Beyond my immediate, introverted concerns lies a world that feels no more ready than I do for the restarting that will be required. I have heard mutterings recently that this is the ideal time for a comprehensive overhauling of our social and educational system, refocusing on the skills needed in the 21st century, not on rote recitation of facts needed in the 19th. Why did schools not act on this when they returned in March? goes the cry. And my heart screams in fury – do they really need to ask why? Do they not see, these faceless criticisers, just how much creative energy would be needed to pull hope and joy back into our curricula? How much optimism and faith are needed to make the world again from scratch?

I am not ready, nor am I willing, to return to a world where the main impetus of all our joint creativity and passion is focused on getting back to where we left off as fast as we can. There was too much wrong with that system. It was based on inequality; on exploitation; on the assumption that there are some people who deserve good things and others who don’t, and that’s just the way the world works, so don’t waste your energy trying to change it. That system is broken. It has been broken morally since the start, and it has been broken practically by a pandemic that shattered everything and everyone it touched.

But what can replace it? Big dreams need big hearts; big minds; big imaginations. They cannot be served by hearts that have been surrounded by walls to keep them safe and spaces that are now too filled with the jagged emptiness of fear and uncertainty to easily cross again. They cannot be created by minds that are hollow with an overload of minute details, choices made day after day after day after day that became, overnight, a possible cause of life and death. They cannot be seen in imaginations that have been reduced by such long habit to the size of these four walls, by the sound of these four voices. They cannot be spun from nothingness, and that is all I have right now.

I am not ready. I need a break. Just for a minute, for a breath, for a chance, just one, tiny, break. Give me some time when the sun is shining and there is no fear, no racing motion, no dramatic need. Then I will come back stronger, steel and resilience forged in isolation having a chance to expand into the armour of change. Then, maybe, just maybe, I will be ready. But I am not ready yet.

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Angels with dirty faces

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the act of being observed changes the occasion under the microscope. By monitoring the food you eat, you change what you consume, and when, and why, and how. By sitting in a classroom surrounded by more paperwork than is present at an amateur writing convention, you change the lesson you are watching and constrain or inflame the relationships that make it come alive. And by considering a blog post of each day as it passed, you anchor yourself in the moment, to the passing of time, and to the repetitive, beautiful, mind-numbing moments that make up family life in isolation.*

A diary with the title
Oh, the irony…

Lockdown with children: an exhausting joy

Family lunch in the garden = lockdown summer holiday

Lockdown begins and ends with the consciousness that, every minute of every day, we are responsible for the care and stability of our offspring. In many ways, I am very lucky. My children are old enough, able-bodied enough and grounded enough to take care of most of their basic needs independently. In the course of lockdown, they have even improved dramatically, if reluctantly, in everything from unloading the dishwasher to getting themselves dressed. They like playing together more than they like being apart, and they both sleep well and wake up late. I’m winning at lockdown parenting. And yet, even with all these odds lined up in my favour, it’s really, really hard. As I write this, hiding under the duvet in the spare room, a part of my brain is listening out for the next crisis, the next drama, the next reason to leave what I need to do to maintain my own equilibrium and dig out my whistle once more. Every certainty they thought they had – that school will always be there for the hating, that only grown ups do the boring chores, that even if the world is ending you are not allowed on the trampoline in your pajamas – has crumbled around them, and however awesome they are, they cannot keep themselves stable alone for any length of time.

Photo taken just before the umbrellas at dawn fencing competition started…

There have been some magnificent moments too. Being an entirely 21st century parent, these are, of course, the ones I have caught on camera. Being in the house, no excuses, no distractions, has given us the opportunity to make good memories, as well as more grey hairs. We have built a den. In fact, we’ve built several. We’ve done baking. They have gone jumping in puddles; I have not. We have experimented with more-dramatic-than-planned new looks and had make up and nail painting and flossing lessons (the dental kind, not the dancing kind, at The Paleontologist’s repeated request). We have spent endless afternoons in the garden and the girls have mastered flips on the trampoline, as every neighbour within a mile’s radius can probably attest. We have laughed hard and been terribly silly, and we have all eaten an utterly absurd amount of sugar.

Inside…
…and outside. Not quite sure why it’s Halloween and Christmas already in this den. I couldn’t quite bear to ask!

Working from home, or surfing through survival?

The second inescapable fact of lockdown in this house is that both of us have jobs, vocations, and obsessions with people-focused work. Church services with no congregations; lessons with no students; Quaker worship over Zoom (who knew a video of thirty people sitting silently waiting could be so moving, and so noisy?). All these things can be done, and they are done, and done as well as we possibly can. But they take so much energy. There is so much scope for one little thing – preparing a workpack late, or accidentally muting a service on YouTube – to adversely affect so many people. Hardest of all is that when you are there, in person, worshiping, preaching, teaching, you get energy back from those around you. It goes round and round and breathes sustenance into everyone it touches. Alone with a computer screen, none of that is possible. This is a finite solution, and the cracks are deepening, as broken as our back lawn was before the rains finally came.

My view during Quaker Meeting this morning #nofilter #filthycarpet

Trying to take photos of my working life as a teacher during lockdown has lead me to acknowledge the good, the bad, and the actually quite dangerous. The thing that comes through clearer than anything else will always be that this is a juggling act. Most of the time, it’s my work that gets dropped. Sometimes, it’s not. Most of the time, it’s just another thing to try and keep in the air.

A messy desk with a laptop in the foreground.
Team meetings and monitoring assignments happening simultaneously. Me, jealous of everyone outside under that amazing blue sky? Why would I be jealous?!
A child's hand, caked in wax, in the foreground. In the background is a work computer.
This is what happens when you have children who are helping out in church services in the same house as parents who are working. Disclaimer: no Paleontologists were harmed in the taking of this photo. In fact, she was rather proud of herself…
In the foreground are workbooks and a purple pen. In the background is a trampoline. It is a beautiful sunny day.
Marking whilst “supervising” trampoline time. It’s not all hard work.

Lockdown and simplicity: focusing on the wins

Plastic free shampoo. Finally. I’ve been toying with the idea of using this for years, and have finally mixed it up…

It will be easy, my brain said. Let’s make a list of all the projects we can do, I said. We’ll be stuck in the house and can finally make a start on living a more ethical lifestyle, I genuinely believed. And, in some ways, we have. For example, we have managed to do much of our shopping from local suppliers – helped by the fact that they did not run out of flour or eggs, even when everyone else did, as well as that they bake the most astonishing chocolate brownies this side of heaven.

Delivery from The Good Loaf. Practically perfect.

Books. Oh, I do love books. As you will probably have guessed already, in fact. And one of the things that has made me most stressed since moving to this vicarage (yes, genuinely) has been that when we unpacked, we just dumped all the books on the nearest bookshelf to clear away the boxes, figuring we’d sort them out later. Turns out that by later, we meant in four years time when the whole country was in lockdown. Also turns out that as jobs go, this may be one I regret starting. Still, at least it’s given me the prod to set aside a fair few books for decluttering once the charity shops open again. Job done. Or at least, job will be done fairly soon when I finish clearing away the final pile to be sorted…

A few of our non-fiction books, roughly sorted and waiting to go back on the shelves.

Ultimately, lockdown has been harder than it has been easy; infuriating more than it has been fun. At no point have I questioned that it’s the right thing to be doing. At many points along the way we’ve all had an absolute ball. But anyone who thinks it’s not going to leave us all wiser, weaker women is, I think, missing something crucial in all of this.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, quite so amazing to me right now as grown up food, eaten alone and uninterrupted in the sun.

*Full disclosure: this is not, actually, a day by day account. It was intended to be, but then life got messy, as it so often does, and I ended up losing a week by blinking and sneezing at the same time (or maybe just by finally becoming accustomed to the not-so-new-anymore normal) and my plans changed. Oops.

Riding the limbo rollercoaster

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times; it is the age of outpourings of Facebook-fuelled generosity, it is the age of stockpiling, panic-driven selfishness; it is the epoch of global awareness, it is the epoch of fake news; it is the coming of Spring, after a winter of floods and wildfires; it is a fridge full of fresh vegetables about to decay, it is reaching for the tinned beans because cooking takes energy that ran out a geological age ago; it is the era of memes of hope, it is the era of gifs of despair. It is a time of limbo, of contradictions, of explosive numbness. It is Lockdown: week 2.

A black and white image of a girl, with a background of line-drawn clocks disintegrating into smoke around her.
Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

No commute into work means that my regular Radio 4 news catch-up now only happens during my blurry semi-sleeping morning resurfacings, and so I am getting most of my news from social media and Newsround (which probably actually makes it quite balanced, though knowing The Paleontologist, there’s no guarantee that the Newsround episodes she’s watching aren’t from several months ago). Social media encourages me to luxuriate in the quality time now suddenly available with my loved ones, and I am excited by the change in pace and in focus and in priorities within the Western world. It simultaneously reminds me that there are oceans of darkness around us, of intensive care units filled with fathers, with sisters, with daughters; of those who are desperate enough to flee their homes into this locked-down society because this is still safer for their children than the communities they are leaving behind; of those desperate and unable to flee the homes that are defined as the only safe havens allowed, but where they will never feel safe, be safe, even be able to stay alive if they remain for as long as this may take. Social media shows me that the most stressful and unifying event in the daily calendar is PE with Joe Wicks; it reminds me of moments of joy and light-hearted mockery; I see crafts I would love to try, and games I am happy to steal, and helps me to stop and focus on the pieces of my heart that share this home with me and make the world a better place. It does all of this while making me feel that I should be baking more, and exercising more, and loving more, and gardening more, and singing more, and painting more, and just Being More. It says “Trust your gut. You’ve got this” while your gut is screaming at you that, whatever else you have (and you quite possibly have plenty) one thing you have not got is This.

Things change and change again, flickering between emotions quicker than a five year old gets bored. There are times (though not that many, as the Age of the Introverts has finally arrived) when I am desperate for any kind of adult company, only to find myself switching off my phone later the same day because I’m all Zoomed out. I’ve never hoovered my home this often, and yet I am driven even more distracted than usual by the piles of paper and cobwebs clouding up every corner. I want to spend our days making and experimenting and playing, but I also want my kids to learn independent time-filling control, which they do quite happily, when I let them, with screen time and convoluted games full of arguments and American accents and make-believe relationships that just don’t need me any more. I turn to binge-eating to avoid facing reality at a time when food is scare and protein-rich comfort food is almost non-existent. I seek others to mourn and grieve and despair with when the world I have railed against comes crashing to a halt.

And so I find myself both loving this time of pausing and dreaming and relaxing, and scared and angry and tense about what can possibly end this limbo. I teeter between absolute joy and utter despair. I try to ride this rollercoaster because at least a rollercoaster moves, even if this one moves only in a continuous seamless loop, a snake of time and timelessness swallowing its own tail. A lot of the time I laugh. Sometimes I scream. And always I look backwards, forwards, sideways, anywhere but right in front of my eyes. If life is what happened while we were making other plans, what else can we do to enjoy this limbo life we are all living right now?

A rainbow of grief and hope and memories of me trying to look after two much smaller munchkins on my own, many years ago. The carpet was never the same again, but it’s always felt worth the sacrifice.

Smiling, Spring and Coronavirus: keeping pandemonium in perspective

Spring landed this morning. The sky was endlessly, brilliantly, blue, bigger and brighter than it has been for months. The grass was uncomfortably luminous, real life filters making it too bright for eyes used to winter dullness. The glorious yellow of the blooming daffodils was matched only by the golden arms of the JCBs, carving out new foundations next to still-waterlogged floodplains. Blossom, too heavy now to be contained in scent-stuffed blisters, burst forth in transitory wonder. And driving through this cacophony of new life, my heart is crashing and my tummy is exploding with tension; a volcano transforming my focus and sapping my mind.

We all live in bubbles. Most of the time, we ignore their presence, looking out through their soapy rainbow walls at a world filtered for us by our own prejudices, seeing everything as though it fits perfectly with our own expectations. But every now and again – in elections, in pandemics, when meeting the family of a new and beloved partner – bubbles crash into each other and can no longer remain invisible. At these crunch points, we have a choice. Do we stay within our bubbles, shoring up the walls and hoping it will be enough to keep out the threat creeping towards us? Do we attempt to burst the opposing force in order to maintain our own security? Do we create a double bubble, the sides gelled together, though each remains integral to itself?

The thing that is most exhausting for me in this time of fear-fuelled headlines and anxiety-provoking bulk emails are the bridges between my bubbles. I have one for home, another for work. One for Quaker Meeting, and an adjacent one, sometimes attached, sometimes a lifetime apart, for Church. I carry these identities within me all the time, and the nothing moments, when I switch from teacher to mother, from daughter to counsellor, from worshipper to Vicar’s Wife, are always the points of my day when surges of energy rush me with adrenaline and exhaust me from my painted toenails through to my split ends. In normal times it can be overwhelming; and these, of course, are not normal times.

Keep calm and carry on is engrained – after all, we don’t want to make a fuss over nothing. Have a cup of tea and let everyone else whip themselves into a flap clashes in mid-thought with memories of those around me I know are immunocompromised, or over 70, or pregnant. My natural instinct to be a raging hypochondriac sits in chattering conflict with my deep-seated need to write off as suspect anything promoted by Boris Johnson. Wanting to do my job and do the best I can by my students, labouring over planning and guiding and marking and feeding back, is suddenly the worst thing I can do, and to help them the most I need to leave them alone. Together we learn the new language of self-isolation and social distancing, too new still to come up on the spellcheck. Every day I hear new myths, covering racism, justifying prejudice, anticipating financial hardship. All of it is based on fear masquerading as fact. All of it is spoken with authority and without understanding.

The world, for many, has been flipped inside out, and I feel buffeted along with it. If we cannot trust each other enough to not hoard toilet paper, how will we get through this together? (I was sitting smug on this one until it occured to me that our upcoming delivery from Who Gives A Crap will be sitting outside our front door all day, if it’s delivered at all. I never worried about other people walking off with it before – after all, it’s a box big enough for The Cowgirl to turn into a cafĂ©, filled with nothing but toilet roll. All of a sudden, I feel a bit like I’m leaving gold dust in the front garden all day…) I won’t finish with advice I’m not sure I can follow either. Instead, I will share the three things I have learned today, and let tomorrow take care of itself.

  1. Don’t be like me. Be like The Vicar.* When the news updated us to leave the house only for essentials and work, I bought vegetables and withdrew cash. He bought a case of wine and visited the sick in hospital. It’s all about priorities.
  2. Don’t sing Happy Birthday. Unless it is your birthday, of course, at which point, indulge as much as you can in the singing, as now is not a good time for parties. Instead of singing, say the Lord’s Prayer. I have found little that helps me slow down, be mindful, and hope, as much as that.
  3. Stop. Talk. Share idiotic stories – from a distance of 2 metres, naturally. My introverted nature is close to dancing for joy at the idea of having a legitimate reason to enforce personal space, but even I’ve been talking to people that I would normally just smile at and move on. This is a time when we need every connection we can make, and actually, it’s lead to some great conversations. And the discovery that security tagging Extra Mature Cheddar is a thing. But mostly, it’s made me smile, and I for one needed more of that.
A screen filled with white and blushing pink blossom.

*I decided my husband needs a name on here, rather than just being defined by his relationship with me. After all, I’m very aware how frustrating that can be. I’m going to get in trouble for this name, as it isn’t technically his current job title. But hey, this is my blog, so I’ll stay a Vicar’s Wife, and he will stay The Vicar.

Take a deep breath

soap-bubble-2258904_1920
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A couple of years ago, we went on holiday to Valencia. Whilst there, we learned many useful life lessons: beaches and dinosaur museums are almost as good for bribery as Haribo and ice cream; Spanish meal times are the way forward (breakfast until 11 as a normal thing? It makes life so much more civilised!); never expect a child to walk more than 3 metres in direct sunlight, unless you have earplugs or there is ice cream at the end of it (at which point, running and leaving you behind, panting in the heat, becomes way more fun). The most lasting lesson, however, was one I learned alone, on a sun-filled stressful family adventure to the beach. The children were finally old enough to be watched by just one adult, and having a fabulous time getting covered in as much sand as possible, so my husband and I took it in turns to go out of our depth and actually swim in the sea. It had been so long since I’d done this, my body had completely forgotten what to do. Waves came towards me and I panicked, freezing and fighting to stay in control. The wave passed. I remembered I can actually tread water pretty well. I looked out to sea, saw there were no immediate waves, and took a breath. The next wave appeared, and my body started to remember that it knew what it was doing. By the third wave, I had it, relaxing into the incoming surge, focussing on the moment, accepting that when the waves came, they were not there to be fought but to be ridden, to be felt, endured sometimes. And then they passed. There was a moment of stillness in which to breathe.

Take a breath.

It is advice I dish out with joyful abandon, and almost never take myself. I say it to my students: if you are getting panicky in an exam, look out of the window and take a deep breath. Let it out. Count the beats to make sure you are breathing more slowly than normal. Keep going until the voice in your head stops repeating “I can’t do this” at the top of its lungs and lets you listen to the question in front of you instead.

Take a breath.

I do this with The Cowgirl, whose emotions regularly consume her entire being. Excitement needs to be jumped and wriggled out. Exhaustion has her curled in a bundle like a nesting cat. Fury cannot be contained in her tummy but comes out in screams and flying fists. Actually, I think this is probably more healthy than the volcano I often have bubbling in my gut, but that doesn’t help if you’re on the receiving end of one of her deceptively strong left hooks. So she screams for a while until fury turns to fright, and then she huddles on my lap and we recover together. We take a breath, feeling the air together, bypassing our lungs and going straight into our bellies. We compare who has the biggest tummy, and I stop holding mine in. We blow out and try to blow each other over. And we keep taking breaths until the anger has passed.

Take a breath.

Trying to get up when it takes everything in you not to cry at the pain running like acid down your spine, you suck air through your nose as hard as you can. Controlling your body as your instincts control you, you pant through contractions before a long low exhale and a baby’s first, faltering inhale. Laughing like maniacs as you lie on your tummies, sharing secrets, you inhale in whoops to try to limit embarrasing consequences. Learning how the world works and what your interactions do to it, you gently breathe out bubbles, whoosh away dandelion clocks, puff out birthday candle flames.

Take a breath.

The thing about taking a breath is that, however perfect that breath is, however much it gave you exactly what you needed in that moment, it can never be enough to stop, to not need to do it again. In the next moment, after a few heartbeats, you need to do it again. And again. And again. The cycle is always necessary, and endlessly repetitive. Most of the time we pay no attention to it at all, until something comes up that gets in the way and makes us focus by breaking the rhythm.

Take a breath.

Today may be an amazing day. Today is allowed to be the day you get it all right. Today can be the day you have the right answer to a crisis at work, or you get home with the time and energy to chat about discoveries, sorrows and playground shenanigans before the bedtime conveyor belt starts. Today might be the day you keep going with fighting bad habits or finally take a step towards building up better ones. Today might be the day everything goes entirely as you wish it to. And then tomorrow comes, the cycle starts again, and the mystery and mayhem of a new dawn takes over. And tomorrow may not be perfect. And that’s ok.

Take a breath.

Everything that matters in life follows that same pattern. Breathing. Eating. Learning. Loving. Growing plants and making memories. Reading, teaching, worshipping, praying. Sometimes it is perfect. Sometimes it is not. Sometimes it gives you everything you are craving. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes the answer appears in your heart before the sentence has even made it past your lips. Sometimes your cries echo for years, unanswered and seemingly unacknowledged. And whatever the moment, the feeling, the answer, next time, you get to do it all again. We want to see results, to know there’s a reason for all this. The rhythm keeps repeating and we look for meaning from the centre of the cycle and cannot find it.

Take a breath.

That answer will come. Every time you do this, it has an effect that cannot happen without what you have done. Each repetition is important, even when the results can only be seen after a long and cumulative journey. Creating a sustainable future; learning the alphabet; trusting that you are actually doing quite a good job of this whole life thing: all these things are made up of tiny moments, none of which are turning points, all of which are important.

You have this. We all do. Sometimes we can see it in ourselves. Sometimes we need others to find it in depths we are too tired to dig through alone. But it is always there. You’ve got this. If not in this moment, then in the next. Or the next. Or the next.

Take a deep breath.

Community, connections, and saying yes: moving beyond giving or receiving

A couple of weeks ago, I got a flat tyre. It turns out that ignoring the warning light because you know something needs doing, and you’ll do it when you get a moment thank you very much, means that sometimes, you end up in exactly the situation the beeping light is meant to avoid. Oops. Now I’m not great with cars, but I can just about use the air machine. I even worked out for myself how to use the flat tyre button, and so was a bit peeved when a random guy came over and terribly helpfully offered totally unsolicited advice. It was 5:30pm, I was tired, and he was patronising, so I may have been a little sarky in my response. The assumption that I needed help just grated, and brought out my inner pre-schooler, insisting on doing it by myself, and probably making the whole job take three times as long as a result.

As it turned out, the tyre was well beyond being fixed by blowing air into it, and I ended up going back to the guy (who was genuinely nice, as well as volunteering for the Air Ambulance). He and his colleague not only agreed (with some surprise) that I had been using the machine right, but also identified the problem with the tyre. They then changed the wheel for me, which is definitely beyond any knowledge I may have had about my own car. I was half way through explaining I didn’t think we had a jack in the back when they slid off a hidden panel and there it was. Good thing there wasn’t anything else hidden in there, really.

Standing at the side of the petrol station, watching two strangers go through the boot of my car, I had another decision to make. The children needed to be picked up ASAP. I could phone our neighbour, who is lovely, and gave me her number at Christmas with the assurance that I should call if I ever needed help picking up the girls from school. Or, I could call my husband, who was busy, stressed, and half an hour away.

I called my husband. Of course. Why? Because it was easier, and I was tired. Because I utterly loathe making phone calls, and making a phone call to someone I don’t know particularly well, in order to ask for a favour, is about the worst kind of phone call I can imagine. Because I didn’t want to look like I wasn’t coping, or was needy. Because she might say no, and I would have gone through all of that for nothing.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that asking for help is not one of my strengths. To be fair, very few of us are any good at it – we all seem to ask for too much help, or, more commonly, none at all. However, this was not just yet another incident of me refusing to accept that I might need help. It was also a case of the offer being made in that fabulously non-commital way: just give me a shout if you ever need help. It’s up there, in my experience, with “just ask if you need a babysitter”, or “if you’re feeling down, just talk to someone”. The times that you really need help are also the times you are lying on the floor in a puddle, hands over your mouth to hold in the panic, and you are damned if you are going to admit that you are not coping with things that everyone else manages with ease. Right now, that tiny dreg of pride is the only thing keeping you from melting into the floor, and you are not letting go of that too.

When The Paleontologist was old enough for me to be desperate for a grown-up night out to not need me around for milk at a moment’s notice, we discovered how hard it is to find babysitters in a new town. We had plenty of people offering help: “just pick up the phone, dear.” I loved that community, but the only time we ever accepted an offer of a babysitter was when someone did not leave the action to me. Instead, she took out her diary, picked up a pen, and said “When shall I come over?” This taught me a lesson I try to replicate, though I often fall short. It is not just that we are really bad at asking for help; we are also, generally, really bad at offering it in a way that lets people say yes.

This affects parenting, making it much harder to form the villages we all need to raise our children well and maintain our sanity at the same time. It affects mental health, leaving the onus on the people who are crumbling, instead of expecting more of those who – at the moment, at least – are more steady on their feet. But it also affects things that are bigger than our individual lives. One of these is our attitude to climate action, and as such, it is something we all need to change.

We all have our own reasons for not wanting to take help. We have our own reasons for not wanting to impose our help on others, too, and most of them are either noble and genuine or so deeply ingrained into the British psyche that it would take the end of the world to get over them. The problem is that all these things make us islands, fighting to survive, standing on our own. Some of us have very small islands – some of us live on them entirely alone. Some of us live there with our families, or close friends. Sometimes they include work colleagues, or your church, or other people who think the same way as you about the things that are important. But all of our islands stop us being genuinely connected to this beautiful shared tear-drop of a planet. They stop us reaching out to help people on our street, forming relationships that will help us work together to reduce our consumption or improve our local communities. They stop us seeing the the world around us as something that we all equally share, and depend on. The air I breathe is merged with my neighbour’s long before it reaches my closest friends; why do I act as though we are not that closely connected?

If we are going to change the world, it isn’t going to be done by individuals taking small actions, though that is a good place to start. It’s not going to be fixed by governments and radical laws, though that will be a necessary piece in the puzzle. We need to change the fundamentals of how we relate to each other, and how we see the world. We need to make community a thing that just happens, rather than something forced and awkward. We need to change our mindsets from What is best for me and mine? to What can I do for all of us? People like me, who might obsess for a week over exactly the right thing to casually say if you see the neighbours in the morning (and therefore end up saying nothing at all) need to take a deep breathe, get out of our introverted comfort zones, and say yes a lot more. We all need to get more specific, and make helping each other routine, instead of being remarkable, patronising, or an act of charity. The best harmonies are those where all the voices have their own lines, weaving and intertwining to create something more beautiful than any individual note. We need to stop practicing our own lines in front of the mirror, getting them to performance standard before we let anyone else know we’ve even been learning to sing. We need to work together with all our stumbles and missed notes, letting the shared melodies carry us through and make us stronger.

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Image by Dieter_G from Pixabay

Of course, saying this is one thing. Doing it is quite another. For me, I think it might be time to step out of my comfort zone and offer my neighbour’s daughter a lift to school. Taking one step at a time, who knows where I might end up?