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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Lockdown: it’s harder, this time.

It was easier, a year ago, to put everything on hold. We could see it coming, the tidal wave that made the world stand still, locked together in horror and determination. We believed we could do whatever it took. Politicians made promises, and hope triumphed over experience as we chose to believe that, this time, they really meant them. We stood together and we clapped and we sang. Shops shut themselves, and hotels opened, taking in the homeless and the shielders and the key workers alike. Schools, work, even the Queen told us to focus only on getting through this, nothing more, nothing less, because one day soon, life would go back to what we most wanted it to be. Hope shone in rainbows and warmth leapfrogged from garden to garden. Zoom was a novelty; online church felt all-inclusive; we made new connections and looked for the good in a world that had crashed into chaos. We recognised a circuit-breaker to cure us not only of coronavirus but of busyness, overconsumption, and dissociation from the world around us. And for those who walked to Hell and back in those early days, who saw no light, no joy, no peace? There was still the knowledge that this would pass. In a few short weeks, waiting at the end of that passing would be human contact, long summer days, and a world that was no longer burning.

Text on a purple background. Text reads "World: There's no way we can shut down everything to lower emissions and slow climate change. Mother Nature: Hold my beer."

It was easier, three months ago. Christmas was just around the corner, and with it came neighbourhoods full of light and the conviction that the economy would never be kept shut through December. The promised release from the rules, a hiatus of joy and sharing within the bleakness of midwinter and the gathering shadows, was a beacon before us. Speaking for my own bubble, the second lockdown passed unmarked and un-cared-for, as schools, colleges, and churches remained open, and our lives continued to crawl along in our now-familiar New Normal.

It is harder this time. We are once more locked in our houses, but this time there is no respite allowed. The world cannot stop; not again, not for anything. We can no longer draw in a collective breath, but can only let out a collective scream. Lessons must be taught and learned, productivity must be maintained. A daily dose of five hours of video calls is no longer even noteworthy, and the hope embodied in PE With Joe or science experiments with balloons and washing up liquid are things of distant memory, out of reach of both our energy and our time. Our houses have had a year building up the residue of continuous indwelling, with no intensive cleaning for the visits of guests or the judgement of relatives. Ten months of furlough or unpaid self-isolation have reduced disposable income to a dream of bygone generations. The walls are pressing in with the weight of the things we cannot give away, or replace, or continue, for fear of the consequences. We cannot wait more, and yet, we must. We cannot do more, and yet, we must. We cannot keep going, and yet, we must. And why? Because we no longer believe that this is as bad as it gets. One day, my fear whispers in the dead of night, will I look back on this present time and say it was still easier than it is at that distant, as yet unimaginable moment?

Darkness. At the bottom, just emerging from shadow, is a woman's chin and downturned lips.
Picture courtesy of Pixabay

This, too, will pass. Glimmers of vaccine-illuminated hope shine through the darkness of these January skies. This life will, one day, be a memory that shows we are stronger than we ever thought might be possible. But if that day seems too far away to touch or believe in; if you too are finding it so much harder this time, remember this: you are not alone.

The countdown to a simpler Christmas. Week 3 (and a bit): More beauty, less of a beast

My Fabulous Mother was fond of recounting, when I was growing up, her Greatest Success as a counsellor (though, now I think more about both counselling and confidentiality, I suspect this might actually have been her Greatest Success that was Also Appropriate to Share with her Children). This success occurred as follows. At around this time of year, or maybe a little earlier, one very overworked and underappreciated client spent some of her session ranting about sprouts. “I don’t know why I bother! They’re so much hassle, and nobody even likes them!” Mother, looking her directly in the eye with her head tilted just a little to one side (yes, I’ve been the recipient of a few of Those Looks myself) suggested calmly “Well, don’t do them then.” And with those five words, Christmas tradition and a source of major angst were both knocked down like the flimsy Ikea-bought gingerbread house they were.*

A gingerbread box with smarties covering it.
It is a good thing Ikea’s furniture is significantly better than their gingerbread houses. This deserted shack was all that could be salvaged from this year’s purchase. Still tasted good, though…

The Internet has been teeming with similar stories recently, as household after household have their bubbles popped and now face Christmas alone. Suddenly it is OK to look at what you would like to eat, rather than what you’ve always eaten in the past, or what you feel is expected. Pigs in blankets? Eat the whole pack! Nothing but eggnog? Well, at least it’s full of protein! All the trimmings but none of the turkey? Can’t say anyone would blame you! But these traditions, and stresses, and plans are all there for the sake of the people we love most in the world – or at least, are most closely related to. And the people we will be spending it with this year, if we’re not spending it alone, are one fraction of that same group – the people we love most in the world. So if we’re not doing all the franticness and faffiness for ourselves or the people we love most, who are we doing it for?

One clichéd beast is that it is all for the children. We must do everything, be everywhere, take part in every activity and contribute to every appeal because if we don’t, their Christmas will be less than it could have been. For those of you without primary school aged children, let me give a flavour of what I mean here. Even in these Covid-riddled times, with no End of Term disco or Christmas play/activity afternoon/assembly to squeeze in, we still had: a Zoomed introduction to Year 2 SATS; Viking Day (Muuum, I was the only one with a homemade costume! It was the Worst Day Ever!); Wedding Day (to celebrate Christian traditions. Because no other Christian traditions spring to mind at this time of year…); Christmas Party Day; Christmas Jumper & Santa Run Day (don’t forget the donation, just a quick dash into a supermarket as we have no doodle-free colouring books or un-nibbled mince pies in the house, naturally…); Christmas lunch (which had to be reordered separately to all their other school dinners, which was probably handy as it was about the only school dinner I actually managed to order in advance); breakfast with Santa (via Zoom, and only for The Cowgirl. The Paleontologist was furious when she found out, not because she missed a Zoom call with Santa, but because she missed waffles for breakfast); and finally, to top it all off, the flu inoculations, with a likely side effect of fever. Good thing a temperature isn’t something to be worried about, really. Oh, wait…

Christmas for The Children goes beyond school nightmares activities, of course. It seeps into everything, becoming indistinguishable from actions to appease my own Ghost of Christmas Past. These things that made Christmas magical for me, I try to recreate so that my children can also feel that magic. The beauty, the candlelight and singing and tranquility my parents somehow pulled off? Those are the things I would love my kids to look back on and smile at in years to come, as they still have that effect on me. But fighting to recreate a half-remembered and thoroughly idealised holiday that fits neither the temperaments not the needs of this household, in this time, in this place, destroys the beauty of my memories by trying to cram them into a stress-shaped handmade golden star gently spinning in the frantic storm of my passing.

One way to make Christmas a thing of beauty is to make it all for God. The carol services and soaring soprano descants and the infant Jesus being borne to the crib at Midnight Mass are things of beauty, of mystery, of joy and worship and wonder. There is peace on the face of every one of those faithful worshippers, who have struggled more than ever this year, and now laugh in relief as they wish everyone love and joy and go home to sleep for a week. There is beauty in the people who come to church every year, in those who come every week, in those who come every day. There is beauty in the reaffirmation of faith and the deepening of commitments, making church-going just a little bit more normal, just for one day. There is soaring beauty and joy there. And there is such a beast to: the beast of expectations, of seeing the finished result of a service and imagining it was as easy to put together as it was to participate in; of settling in to the familiar and forgetting that even the familiar must be practiced and reworked and takes more effort than dragging a wheelie bin through a hedge backwards, just as those secular reworkings of cooking the dinner and decorating the house and searching, again, for the list of addresses you swore last year you would put back in a safe place takes time, and energy, and emotion. And through it all you have cancelled dreams and last minute positive Covid tests and phone calls from people expecting decisions it is not yet possible to make. For me, some of the greatest beauty in the season is held in the familiar worship, recreated anew every year; and some of the greatest beastliness can be found in what it takes to make that worship possible.

Maybe Christmas is for Good? Anyone with as bad a taste in cheesy heartwarming films as I have will have seen many, many different incarnations of the story (probably) initiated by A Christmas Carol, where someone who thinks only about money discovers the error of his (and it does seem to usually be his) ways, discovers the Magic of Christmas, and opens his heart to joy. In Nativity that joy means accepting the past and embracing self-belief. In A Muppet Christmas Carol it means supporting local businesses and realising that money can be used for good as well as ill. In Love Actually it means acknowledging and embracing those around us who get us through, even though this hurts sometimes. In A Christmas Story it means doing your best to fulfil your children’s dreams, even if they break their hearts (or their glasses) in the process. In Christmas Vacation it means destroying everything around you in order to discover that the things that really matter are not the lights, or the eggnog, or even the Christmas Bonus, but are rather the people you share those horrific, hilarious moments with. And the list could, of course, go on, and on, and on. People with their priorities misplaced get them corrected by the magic in the air and the movements of Father Christmas, and renew all our faith in ourselves, humanity, and the world. These are tales that place goodness at the heart of Christmas, and yet in themselves create impossible expectations and unliveable ideals that contribute, in part, to the reason that this season causes more divorces than any other in the year.

Christmas is about individual traditions and collective memories. It means working to help those who are lost or abandoned by others or the system; it means finding beauty and hope in lights in your neighborhood or the local parks; it means worshipping and glorying in individual acts or communal praise; it means finding the perfect gift that will be used and treasured and remembered for years to come; but it doesn’t mean all of these things, all together, all of the time, for every person. It is not about outdoing others, or overdoing excess, or doing every single thing that makes your memories sing every single year. I hope that this year, for all the darkness many will face in the days ahead; for all the food that will be thrown away in one house while next door starve with no access to fresh supplies; for all the people who tore their families apart working out their original Christmas bubbles and cannot see anyone at all now to fix the deep-running pain; I hope for all the hurt we have faced this year, it may just give us the chance to re-find the beauty and magic of Christmas in a way we haven’t had for decades before this. And, in the very, very long run, I hope that will be one of the real blessings of 2020.

A garland on a staircase which has actually been hoovered! Wrapped around the banisters are Christmas lights; in the corner is a washing basket and a bookcase.
A handmade garland; reusable advent calendar, Christmas lights on the stairs. This is what my home looks like all year round in my dreams.

*I also very happily followed this advice in my own cooking until my Mother-in-law, who is equally marvellous but has a couple of significant blind spots in the area of Green Vegetables, introduced The Paleontologist to sprouts a few years ago. In doing so she accidentally discovered the one, lightly-steamed-with-no-added-flavour or-they-don’t-count, green vegetable she is not only willing, but eager, to eat…

The countdown to a simpler Christmas. Week 1: Advent

In my mind and in my fantasies, Advent is a time for making memories, dancing from one perfect moment to another with well-fitting coats and knitted scarves and big smiles as we visit Santa, pick greenery, sing carols and romp together in the snow. The house is clean and shiny from top to bottom; all the de-cluttering jobs that have been nagging at me all year are miraculously tidied up into other people’s welcoming arms; and warmth, fairy lights and the smell of cinnamon and homemade sugar-filled treats fill the air. Presents are handmade and meaningful; cards are written with love and actually posted; decorations are natural, zero waste and beautiful; and the air is pregnant with expectation and spiritual growth.

What Advent actually is, in this household at least, is exhaustion. It is cold. It is hectic. It is children with runny noses and adults who rely on their voices for work but are losing them anyway, and an endless, nagging feeling of not being on top of things. It is hyperactivity and the screeching of “Fiiiiive goooooold riiiiiings” from every room. It is The Palaeontologist screaming in frustration because she used up all her energy five weeks ago and hasn’t worked out how to build up more. It is Zoom calls about upcoming SATS and last minute letters about Viking days at school and realising you have no suitable clothes for the end of term celebration because your children have grown two sizes since they last went to a party. It is waiting not for the birth of Jesus but for clarity over government rules and regulations, The Vicar writing and revising what church services will be possible and how, everyone bending their minds around who will feel safe enough to meet together over the Christmas week, and what the consequences of any actions we take might be.

My reality is overload. My ideal is overly saccharine. Neither of them have any connection to simplicity. And Advent is a season whose heart cries out for simplicity. It is a time when we remember waiting. It is a time that was first filled with the praying, and preparation, and solitude, and weariness, and fear, and uncertainty of a pregnancy and birth that would change the world. It is a time of hoping against all expectations that this year it will be different. It is a time that first ended in a dirty, crowded, love-filled overflow to an inn that was more welcoming than it had space to be. How might it be possible, in an era of moments engineered for the perfect social media shot and endless comparisons across the playground, to bring that simplicity into my own Advent rituals?

One way is resisting some of the many and increasing customs of Advent itself. Advent calendars are shared and re-used every year in this household, and contain acts of kindness and, this year, the Christmas story as well as chocolates (because let’s face it, without chocolate would anyone get as far as looking for the lovingly recycled messages to act on every day? Plus, that boost of sugar before getting out of bed in the morning is apparently exactly what they need to drag themselves into their school uniforms in these final, closing days of a term that has lasted at least two decades.) We avoid Christmas Eve boxes (easy enough when Christmas Eve is a work night, and a busy one at that) and buy Christmas Jumpers – an absolute necessity for any primary school child in modern Britain – second hand, and re-gift them after they are outgrown (or try to – currently, I confess, I have a large and growing pile of them I never remember to give away at the right time of year). And I flatly refuse, with everything that is in me, for the sake of my little remaining sanity and well-being, to do Elf on the Shelf.

Notes for an advent calendar, with quotes from the Christmas story and acts of kindness. They are surrounded by chocolate and lying on top of pieces of Christmas wrapping paper.
Acts of kindness written on recycled Christmas wrapping paper. Two chocolates for every action (anything to avoid another squabbling match); one action for every Advent calendar compartment.

These moves are not enough to satisfy my hope of simplicity. Noise and lights and already-decorated Christmas trees still surround me at all times. The underlying fear that presents will not get bought has started to seep into my nightmares. The alternating fears that when my children look back on Advent, they will either remember nothing but chocolate and Christmas films; or that they will remember nothing good at all, make me seek out more to do and more ways, new ways, different ways to fit in with the expectations of those they are surrounded by and Make Memories by doing, spending, acting.

There is no perfect medium in this one. The things that would be my ideal would not be the ideals of my family. The days are long gone, if they ever existed at all, when I could work towards making my own perfect Christmas and simply expect others to enjoy it too. And that is a good thing. Not only because my perfect Christmas was unachievable, but also because, in moving away from my own ideals and accepting that maybe other people’s ideas have equal value, I have also moved away from thinking only about perfection, about service by martyring myself in a quest for everything to look like a Disney set, and started noticing the moments when we get it right, together; even when that means letting The Cowgirl “help” with making the Christmas cake, turning a 15 minute mixing job into an hour-long blow by blow account of every moment of her school day, interspersed with us both swiping tastes of the uncooked cake batter, loaded with brandy-soaked dried fruit, whenever we thought we could get away with it. I still want to try to read more of the Bible and less of escapist novels downloaded because they were free on Kobo. I also want my children to help me to make new family traditions, which are likely to involve a lot more mud, shrieking, and screen time (quite possibly simultaneously), than I would ever volunteer for. I still want quiet times and times of prayer and times when I intensively clean away a year’s worth of dust and grime and make our living space feel more like a home and less like a haunted house, wrapped in spiders webs and clogged with cat fur. And I also want to do one thing, every day, just for fun. Simplicity can be about what we choose not to do, not to buy, not to eat; it is also about living here, and now, and enjoying what is here and now, rather than focussing always on the future. And focussing on the here and now can be as much a part of waiting and preparation as anything else.

Simple figures of a pregnant Mary and a caring Joseph, on a wooden tabletop, with a homemade Christmas decoration in the background.

To every thing there is a season

Some things in life are uncontrollable and unquestionable. Night will follow day. Feathers are lighter than bricks. If you are poor you are much more likely to suffer during times of flood, fire, pestilence and broken election promises. And the first of September means that the slow pace of a sleepy summer is about to be smashed by the mind-boggling vagaries of a new academic year.

Discussions ebb and flow around how that last can be combatted – how teachers ought to reduce their own workloads, how the focus of Ofsted inspections might include wellbeing (oh, the irony), how the summer holidays should be shorter. I can safely say that my initial reaction to that idea can best be summarised by viewing Munch’s The Scream; whether I admit it to outsiders or not, the possibility of an unbroken stretch of planning time with the lazy luxury of indulging my imagination rather than being constrained to using only what can be found on teaching websites or Ecosia in the first 15 minutes of searching is one of the few things that prepare me for the jaw-clenching emotional battering that is currently the autumnal lot of a teacher.

But like most initial reactions, mine doesn’t hold up to reasoning or scrutiny. Less time off in the summer might be balanced by more time off through the year, which just may avert having to spend every school holiday curled in the foetal position and only moving to find more wine. Less time off in the summer would mean fewer colour-coded spreadsheets detailing how every favour going has been called in to allow working parents to afford to keep their children safe and entertained and fed for 6 consecutive weeks. Less time off should mean less time for those same kids to forget everything they have been taught, thus avoiding the need to cover the same topic again in entirely new ways at the start of the next year. Less time off could even ease the emotional pressures of going back after so much growing and changing and boredom and shifting sands, and allow those children (and adults) made anxious by new starts to walk back in through the school gates with equanimity.

Changing the length of the summer holidays. A quick win that would genuinely benefit the economically deprived more than the well-off; but that’s OK, because it would benefit the economy too. So why haven’t we done it? If we were ever going to take this step, this year was the year to do it. Life was already stopped short. Children had managed to squeeze a lifetime of braincell-destroying emotionally stunted drivel Power Rangers and Richie Rich into three months of Lockdown, and even they were starting to get bored of the same people doing the same jokes with the same canned laughter day, after day, after day. Returning to the classroom in August could have solved so much. What better time, then, to change the unchangeable and attempt the impossible?

By Edvard Munch – National Gallery of Norway, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69541493

It couldn’t happen. Not right now. It is just too big. Too different. Too hard. Too creative. Too dramatic. Too united. Far, far too scary. Too many of us are still frozen, shell-shocked by the battering we have taken in the last few months. Head teachers ordered schools to be locked and children turned away at the gates, mere days after insisting fines would follow any absence from the premises. Bishops ordered churches to be shut and people locked out of the houses of God. Parents forbade family to see the grandchildren that made their now-threatened lives worth enjoying. Those we most trusted to respect our institutions, our loved ones, our ideals and truths, were the ones who stopped us from accessing them and left us to cry alone in the night. It may have been the right choice, the moral choice, the only choice; but its consequence is still that we are now left standing, slack-jawed and staring, unsure where to go or what to say or who to trust. Every household drew up its drawbridge and filled the moat with crocodiles, reminded at all times that contact with anyone outside those gossamer thin, MDF walls could carry the disease that would decimate those living within. That mistrust could not be fully overcome as the collective clapping of March descended into enforced community judgement time in May, as the pubs re-opened, or with the invitation to return to city centre offices. It will not be overcome by the calendar turning from August to September either.

This lesson is fundamental for those of you raising the cry for revolution, for immediate and dramatic action, for every one of us still cowering in the half-light of uncertainty to get up, get out and get on with it. This is true for the arch-conservatives and arch-radicals alike, united as you are by the desire to move beyond Lockdown and into whatever comes next. It may be overthrowing the government and celebrating the world doing a U-turn on its axis and accepting the emergency that is the climate crisis. It might be the pressing need to drive the economy back into never-ending, never-tiring growth as the means to draw the world’s poor, unprivileged, desperate-to-be-educated peoples into the same glorious bubble as the Western world. Wherever you are and whatever led you there, do not attempt to force action on those of us who are still a long way off. Go easy on us. For you this may be a time of infinite possibility, or of a need to act that is so strong it fills your mouth with adrenaline and your guts with nervous energy. I love that there are people with energy and hope in the world, because it reminds me that one day, I will be there too, walking beside you, shouting in time with you, working in harmony with you. But I am not there yet. I am still in that place where the one way systems and beautifully individualistic face coverings and starkly divided classrooms make a space that was once more familiar than my own home feel alien, and threatening, and unsafe. I am still in a time that is neither ready to reap nor to sow, to heal nor to die, to build up nor to break down. I am in the time between times; the pause between breathing in and breathing out; the moment on a pendulum when everything is changing direction and, at exactly the same time, everything is utterly still. The time will change soon. You can taste it in the water and feel it in the air. It is coming. Have patience. We do care and we will shake off the lead-lined inertia holding us down, and when we do, we, too will dance.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance

Present absences

Thumb idly scrolling, alarm clock snoozing for the seventh time, my day is starting with a whimper and a sigh. I tell myself to move before my back locks completely, but even while I am telling myself sternly to get up and get going, I scroll on. On through posts that I ignore – plenty of them, rightly or wrongly; posts that make me laugh – sadly few of them; posts that make me angry; posts that make me hurt. There are a lot of those, and they lurk behind my eyelids for the rest of the day, popping out of my subconscious and into my internal monologues whenever I stop for long enough to take a breath.

What is it that makes me hurt? It’s not the crisis after incompetence after tragedy typhooning through the world, though that does me no credit, I know. Those are the posts that make me angry, and my responses are either avoidance or self-destruction, as they consume my mind in a blinding supernova of rage. No, the things that make me hurt are the day by day moments that are so much more creative, more joyful, more full than my days are. Is it jealousy? Probably, in part, if jealousy starts with your throat and your eyes and your hope and moves on to your tummy, inching its way by repetition to your heart. I know those are the good moments, the islands in the storm for others, just as they are when I post the same. And yet, that litany of pictures, of family adventures, positive Lockdowns, weight loss, planning a holiday, making a difference, speaking out, being brave, achieving goals, taking a risk and getting it wrong, and just plain living – that cumulative scrolling makes my heart ache and saps my will.

This is not a post bewailing social media. Of course people should share their joys, their sorrows, their hopes and failures, if that is what they want to do. Indeed, for those of us who are congenitally incapable of maintaining relationships over a distance, Facebook is a marvel and a delight for much of the time. But when the presence of something is an expected norm, unquestioned and unquestioning, how do you share its absence?

I was one of the first in my friendship group to have children, so I won’t speak like I’m an authority on what it feels like to have none when your body and your mind and your soul are tearing you apart with longing. People I love have shared their experiences with me – of the fear and the pain and the praying, the debt and the hope and the impossible choices, but it is not something I can directly speak to. At the other end of life’s glorious spectrum, I have lost a parent when most of my peers were still living with theirs. I know that moment of jarring reminder when someone asks “Where do your parents live?” I have seen the dawning horror on their faces as the conversation progresses. I answer about my Mum, and they ask whether Dad will be joining us too.* Now my Dad died many years ago, so, although it still makes me sad to think of all he is missing and of all the things I can’t share with him, mention of those things no longer makes me cry. So if I’m asked, I answer the question. To be honest, I usually answer it bluntly. And then the person I am speaking to is left with no idea, at all, of what to say next. Because how do you respond when someone tells you that they are outside the box you expect them to be in and, no matter how much you want them to, they will never go quietly back to being normal?

Normal. Isn’t that an awful term? As though there is something we all started out as, and any deviation from that is somehow an error. But if normal is white, cis-gender, heterosexual, in a stable relationship, with children, able-bodied and neurotypical, with no mental health concerns and no traumatic events in their past – if that is normal, then normal is an awfully small collective. And where does that leave the rest of us?

It leaves us living with absence. It may be small. It may be life-changing or hope-destroying. It may be dictated by circumstances or forced upon you by another’s actions. But let’s not forget that it may also be a blindingly positive, proactive choice. How do you celebrate small, with the things you did not buy, the waste you did not create, the plastic you did not use? Or celebrate big, with the choices you made to not follow that expected path and the joys it has given you in the execution of your own vision? Living a more sustainable life, materially and emotionally, is as much about positive absences as it is about the presence of future-looking actions. It is about the counter-cultural refusal to cash into a society that tells you that the way to protect our communities is to buy and to fly and to keep on moving, spending, updating. It is the rejection of the message that if you buy this or avoid eating that or go there, you will be full and have no absences, because they are bad and must always be hidden from view. 

Epidauros II by Barbara Hepworth. Negative space can be extraordinarily beautiful.

Absence is as real as presence in our lives. Sometimes it is more real than the furniture around us and the lives outside our windows that all look so very, very different to our own. It can be a fury-filled growl of silence and frustration; a blank canvas of waiting for something to happen; an exciting and life-giving explosion of self over expectation. If we could share those moments of absence without fear, or pain, or judgement, or apology; if we knew the whole of our selves could be seen, how could the world not be a better place?

*As a side note, please don’t do that. Don’t repeat language someone else has changed. It wasn’t an accident. They heard what you said and they changed it deliberately. If you ask about someone’s wife and in their response they use the word partner, or husband, or reply about themselves in the singular, that’s what you need to use too for the rest of your conversation.

Nothing to fear but fear itself?

Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. 

Franklin D Roosevelt, in his 1st inaugural address, 1933

I wonder how the people who first heard this line felt when they heard it, before it became one of those overly misquoted sayings you hear but don’t really listen to. Listen to it carefully and it is ridiculous. And powerful. And baffling. It’s saying that really, we have nothing to fear: once you unmask your fears and find nothing behind them, then you are no longer afraid, just like a child who sees monsters hiding in the cupboards until she screams for her parents, and they, turning on the lights, reveal nothing but an empty dressing gown hanging on a wardrobe door. Reveal the shadow-filled dressing gown for what it is, and the child is free. Recognise terror as the makings of our own imaginings and it can no longer control us.

Franklin D Roosevelt with his wife. Picture courtesy of Wikipedia, fount of all knowledge.

The appeal of having nothing to fear is as old as the sensation itself, embedded in Psalms, poetry and Disney ballads alike; sung in the voices of angels and crooned in the whispered prayers of mothers leaning over their suckling babies and speaking mostly to themselves. It is immortalised in self-help manuals and spoken by monsters showing glimmers of humanity as only Shakespeare can pull off. It is as old as time and as fresh as the adrenaline you try to ignore as it pumps through your veins, your instincts screaming at you to fight or flee.

There is just so much to be afraid of. There will have been other times in history when simply stepping out of the front door could be seen as risking your life. There will be other times in the future, I hope, that the welfare of one is dependent on the kindness and care of all. But knowing there are other times it has felt like this does not diminish its impact now. Back in the heady early days of lockdown, when the world was a more innocent place, when we believed that two kilos of coffee would see us through, and we still thought Specsavers was the best place to go to test our eyesight, it felt like once we got through the peak, we would put fear behind us. Oh, how wrong we were. About all of those things, as it turns out. Now, as lockdown starts to ease, the fear is increasing in inverse proportion. Fear of taking part has running battles with fear of missing out. Fear of the unknown merges into fear of the over-familiar. Everyone I love is going to die meshes in with Lockdown is pointless and is Coronavirus so bad anyway? Are we over-reacting? Are we under-reacting? Are we doing both at the same time? We have been afraid for so long now that it is no longer possible to tell the difference between fear and frustration, between boredom and common sense.

Fear of a virus that lurks in the lungs of our loved ones, that tricks you into complacency and then lashes out with a summons to a ventilator, an ICU, a mortuary; that has become part of the New Normal, accepted and mocked in bizarrely equal measure. The reaction has been relatively unanimous worldwide, and utterly unimaginable even 9 months ago. Could we feel similar fear, have similar unanimous actions for other things? Could we react similarly in order to fight deaths by gunshot, maybe – which kill 400,000 people worldwide each year in “unlawful” killings alone? Does that not warrant worldwide unified action? What about the climate crisis? The WHO estimates that this will cause 250,000 additional deaths per year from around 2030 onwards; that feels like something it would be nice to avoid, something we should probably be worried about. Every decade, the changing climate will kill 5 times as many people as Covid-19. It may not have the immediate fear factor of an uncontrolled global pandemic, but its creepingly insidious nature looms like the shadow that is so familiar we have grown to ignore it, the volcano that may be theoretically alarming, with its grumblings and smoke-belching,  but will never be taken seriously because people have been whinging on about it for so long now. Fear can become so normal that you pretend it no longer exists, and flood to the beaches because the Prime Minister said it’s safe now, or fly away on holiday because anything is better than staying within these four walls for another day, or insist on everything being wrapped in throwaway plastic or bought new from the shops because we were wondering if we’d ever be able to do that again, or because our short-term terror overwhelms our long-running fear every time.

My fear of the virus is present but not strong. I am more worried about the repercussions a badly-managed lockdown will have on society. I am very afraid of the meltdown that climate change will precipitate in that same society, as everything we thought we knew is gradually eroded, crumbling like a scenic cliff-edge village into the inevitably rising sea. But the fear that overwhelms everything else in my subconscious is the fear that, after all this pain, and loneliness, and fear, that after all this, nothing at all will change. I have been saying throughout lockdown that I don’t know which I fear more: everything changing, or everything remaining the same. (I know I must have said it before as it made it into The Vicar’s sermon last week, and he only ever listens if I say the same thing 150 a few times…) My statement isn’t true anymore. I know where I stand now. I know what I fear, far more than fear itself. I fear losing everything to a global crisis we could all see coming and did too little to prevent, as much as I fear losing the insights into my own heart I have won through blood, sweat and blog posts over the last few gruelling and gloomy months. We could do something about changing the world if we wanted to – 2020 has punched us in the global solar plexus, winding us all with a single blow, demonstrating how interconnected the world is, how brutality in one continent influences policy in another, how we can only look on in awe at Mongolia whilst we pity the United States, how crises will only stay defeated if we stop passing them off as someone else’s fault. The thing I fear most is that despite everything we are not going to listen to 2020’s claxon call. That we might change for a while, but that over time, we will forget. We will forget the carers we clapped for, the lives we knelt for, the change we yearned for. We will forget what we hope for in the rush to return to what we think we have been waiting for. And by the time we stop for long enough to remember, it will be too late. The world will have returned to normal. Fear will no longer be an everyday bedfellow. It will fly away, holding tight to the hand of hope, and the only way we will ever see it again will be to take the second star on the right and keep going until morning.

We are all interconnected, after all, and all breathe each other’s air. Montage courtesy of Pixabay.

Because sometimes, fear is a good thing. Fear can lead to life-saving lifestyle choices. Fear can lead to acts of courage that seem like a dream when you relive them in endless retellings, as fear becomes bravery and fact becomes legend. Fear can lead to sacrifice and blessings beyond measure, because fear can be just the other face of hope. It is when we are most afraid that we draw most on hope: hope of finally having a forever family when you feared children would never be in your future; hope of surviving an earthquake when buried deep beneath the rubble; hope of a new life free from fear when you lead your children into a rubber dinghy and pray you will make it across the ocean. Hope is what keeps us all alive. Hope is what we need now more than ever. And if we sacrifice fear to complacency and mystery to the mundane, will we ever be able to pay the price?

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.

Busy doing nothing: the first 5 days.

Day 1. The Cowgirl comes in at 6:30am (second time that night) with an ouchy tummy. My sleep-fogged brain finally puts together all the pieces and we work out this is an all-too-familiar list of events, which results in a call to the doctor and antibiotics for a urine infection. Normally this means a day of Netflix, sleep and Calpol, and then back to normal. Today it resulted in a text message by 8:30am reminding us that, because urine infections come with a fever, the family is officially locked in for 14 days.

First I refused to believe it, running through everything I wanted to get done before this happened. Then came relief: at least now we knew what the next 14 days had in store. That was closely followed by guilt and a morning spent in Skype, email and Google Classroom as I watched my colleagues trying to plug holes and fight fires as we locked down the college for the academic year, with no exams complete and no certainty of whether this is entirely practicable or a massive over-reaction.

By lunchtime, we can breathe again. Calls have slowed, children have settled, antibiotics have been fetched. We have more food in the house than we had at Christmas, nothing has run out yet, and there are flowers and sunshine.

The evening arrives and I’m buzzing. Life is good and so are the people around us. My colleagues have delivered my left-behind marking; The Vicar’s colleagues have delivered the most beautiful duck eggs you’ve ever seen, and soil-encrusted potatoes from the local market. The paramedics have also revised their opinion: with The Cowgirl responding as expected to antibiotics and given The Vicar’s key-worker status we are given the all clear for him to leave the house if necessary. We are good.

Home working meets home schooling meets our kitchen table, clear for the first time since… well, possibly since we moved in.

Day 2. Can it really only be day 2? This time last week everything was still pretty much normal. How can things possibly change this much in a week? Within the house, life is manageable, apart from occasional gripes when told that we can’t use the playground and a moderate panic from me until I work out that what sounded like dry coughing from the living room was actually just The Paleontologist putting lanterns into her Minecraft mansion. Seriously – who knew the two things could sound so alike? Outside The World’s wheels continue to turn. Fears abound and people continue to behave like idiots. But self-isolation works both ways, and we are as isolated from that as others are from our temperatures.

Rainbow crystals take 1. These followed the recipe. The others did not. They are not quite so pretty…

Day 3. It’s Mothering Sunday. Church and Meeting are in enforced lockdown; we join Zoom so that we can take part in Meeting, catch up on worship on Facebook Live, and take the timer off Facebook so that it stops telling me this is contradicting my digital wellbeing. The sun is shining; the blossom is blooming; The Cowgirl is experimenting with endless rainbow crystal test tubes. All around us people are struggling and suffering and stressed and I am feeling pretty guilty that I am not.

My students have told me before that it is only in England that the work-life balance is so bad that you cannot shop for fresh produce every day. What habits will we all form in this time of enforced idleness? And will we want to return to our great busyness when society returns to normal? There are times that it feels like this is a giant reboot, turning society off and on again. I am aware that there will be many who are unable to trust that this is an answer to prayer. I am aware that there will be times when I cannot feel that myself, and I am aware that I am very lucky that right now isn’t one of them. But we have been praying for years for something to disrupt the destructive, cataclysmic societal structures that are draining the lifeblood of existence on earth. Prayers are very rarely answered exactly how we would like them to be. Is it just possible that this time, they are being answered like this?

Mothering Sunday flowers. I present to you the New Normal.

Day 4. It’s Monday. Schools are shut and we’re juggling children’s activities with trying to maintain a normal work timetable. This is not going well. The morning was pretty productive and the children were cheerful. The afternoon was productive in a very different way: mostly productive of tears. And screaming. And The Paleontologist pretending she’s 15 and storming off to her room, slamming every door along the way. 8:30pm brings the news of Shutdown 2.0 from Boris Johnson, and the day ends with whiskey and chocolate on the sofa. The Vicar’s phone pings continuously from those who can no longer look to any form of church to sustain them when they need it most. His face greys out as the evening progresses and he gives all he doesn’t have while mourning himself for what has been ripped away from the core of his being. There are many who are screaming tonight, as the candles, lit at 7 to show hope, are blown out one by one.

Our joint plan for avoiding going stir-crazy. And to stop me spending all day hiding away with nothing but a bottle of gin and my phone.

Day 5. The cracks are deepening and blood is starting to seep through. There have been tears, tantrums and misunderstandings galore. The kids haven’t been coping brilliantly, either. Things ease once the morning chaos is past, though – the sunshine continues to help us out massively, a local independent bakery are doing home deliveries of chocolate brownies, and school have sent out colouring activities instead of research tasks this morning. This too will pass. All will be well.

As close as we can get to holy ground, in The Room Formerly Known As The Dumping Ground.