This week’s discussion on our current experiences of lockdown and how the the past is helping us make sense of them reached a new level of richness, honesty and connection. Margaret observed that people were chatting to each other with the kind of trust of those who had known each other longer than we have. Maybe that is a side effect of the times we are in? Whatever the reason, I felt privileged to experience the wide scoping perspective of the overlapping realities we shared. In there, despite our differences, were lots of themes that I could personally relate to. Here are the written up versions of our conversations and personal reflections this week.
A conversation with Susan Baker by Alberto Velázquez Yébenes
It was her birthday. It was also her first time in the Zoom chat. Susan has been in isolation for some time now, and in the background, she has been dealing with isolation compounded by missing her husband, who died 7 years ago. The man with the skillful hands and even sharper mind.
However, the first thing that came to mind, had nothing to do with isolation. Strangely enough, the pandemic ticked a different box for this (exactly) 85-year-old. She felt fortunate as it brought back echoes from an even more uncomfortable time when she had to share her bedroom and all other living space with her sister, after she lost her mother to cancer at the young age of 16 years. Because of this, she could embrace the privacy of her own space, with optimism and awareness.
It shocked me that this came in the opposite direction from everyone in the room. Difficulties are striking all of us now, and more and more often we are finding each other talking about talking about really hard issues, people dying and the different impacts of uncertainty. Maybe, experience of the harsh realities of life before this period in time is half the battle?
That’s why, perhaps, even with persistent sound problems, Susan and I connected with each other. We quickly got into discussing how difficult is to make new friends, or adapting to a completely new scenario at certain moments of your life. A good lesson for what we will have ahead of us soon.
Whilst talking about missing the Royal Exchange Elders, acting, and other different social groups she’s engaged with since her husband died, Susan was very empathetic as she related to my situation being an alien to this country, when I arrived 6 years ago. A different language, with your loved ones far away, some of them dead. We talked about how challenging this time is going to be, and at the same time what sort of strengths are going to form part of the equation. Grief is probably one of them. Being prepared for a marathon doesn’t mean you can run it with no effort, though.
It’s a beginning.
A conversation with Babs Cain by Lucy Stephens
In 2005 I broke my ankle, which left me hospitalised three times and I had to leave my life in Manchester to recuperate in my parents’ dining room in Shrewsbury. It was an incredibly difficult time, I was desperate to get back to normal and regain my independence, a feeling resonating strongly now.
Every Saturday without fail, I tuned into X-Factor with my family, not that we have been bothered since, but then it signified being a week closer to normality for us all. Currently, I am seeking solace in the weekly applause for the N.H.S. and key workers. Along with showing our utmost appreciation for those keeping the country running, we are also a week closer to being able to hug our nearest and dearest. I have also been getting to know neighbours that I had never spoken to before and forming a new community. There is talk of arranging a street event, which I really hope comes into fruition!
Babs is one step ahead of us though, she is part of a WhatsApp group for her street, which has also been joined by residents of nearby streets too. Babs surprised herself in initiating a kids’ disco in their front gardens, which is tremendous fun and includes lots of songs with actions which everyone can dance along to, such as YMCA and Superman. She also spoke of being in contact with her far flung family members more often thanks to video calling which has been a happy side effect of lockdown for me too. As Babs and I have both done during lockdown, I formed a new community in 2005, only then it was the wonderful staff in the fracture clinic at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and my ever patient family.
I feel that we will never get back the normality we knew at the beginning of the year, but I don’t believe that this has to be all doom and gloom, I really hope this increased sense of community in the streets of Chorlton will last too.
We are living through very strange times, “unprecedented” as we are continuously informed by politicians. Many aspects of our lives we take for granted are either being drastically altered or put on-hold altogether. Several regular activities I take part in are just not happening ; as well as my work at the Oxfam charity shop there is the gardening, drama, and history talks at Chorlton Good Neighbours and, what I’m now missing most, FOOTBALL. Like many, many others I am looking to fill in the increased amount of free time with various jobs around my home which I have been procrastinating doing and resuming new hobbies.
Other more mundane, daily actions are also changing. Of course much more is being done online and exploring new facets of the technology involved has been a bit of an adventure! However shopping trips are very different: I’m used to mostly doing a daily shop for a few items, now I am going twice a week and having to carry home a large bag of goodies. It’s also odd to see some limitations on the stock available and perhaps having to be a little experimental with meals. Finally there is the extraordinary way we are all walking on our permitted “daily exercise“, zig-zagging to avoid people and stepping to one side to let fellow walkers pass at a safe distance. One way aisles in supermarkets are now adding to this oddity.
Perhaps this lockdown may help us both as a nation and individuals to re-evaluate what in our lives really matters?
Like Tony, I miss my voluntary work and other regular activities in my retirement, especially Wednesdays looking after my now one-year old great nephew. It was lovely this week to play “Peepo” with him via a video call, but it’s hard not knowing when I’ll be able to give him a cuddle again.
During our conversation, Tony pointed out that the “reduced items” section of supermarkets have probably been withdrawn because they risk people crowding round and forgetting about social distancing. Afterwards, I thought more about how people on low incomes will miss them, and how the need for food banks has grown over the last eight years or so. We’ve got used to supermarkets being collection points, but memories resurfaced for me of collecting non-perishable food during the year-long miners’ strike in 1984/5, sometimes outside supermarkets, but particularly in Manchester district libraries for whom I worked for most of the 1980s. The City Council at the time permitted collection points within the local libraries, although staff were asked not to discuss politics with any members of the public. Most library users were very supportive and generous. I remember only one occasion when an angry man tore down the poster above the donations at Withington Library, but thankfully everyone kept calm and he eventually stormed out of the building.
Thinking back, we knew there would be an end somehow to collecting food for the striking miners. We would have been very shocked to learn about the extent of food poverty in recent years, now so much worsened by the pandemic.
Out of all the themes that have emerged in our conversations so far, a deepening appreciation of nature has been the strongest for me; the natural world is definitely louder and closer to my attention right now. Birds are beautifully noisy and colours are brighter. With increased time to think, I’ve been gazing through the window a lot. For every thought, no matter how troubling, there’s a background of peace anchoring me: of blossom, light and shade on leaves, branches waving in the wind and an ever-changing sky.
When I do go outside for daily exercise, the contrasting feeling of spaciousness reminds me of growing up in what was the semi-rural town of Sandbach. I would regularly escape on my bike for hours at a time, often with my friend Kirsten, speeding through the roads and streets, houses spacing out further and further until there was just us on an empty lane, only fastened in by the fields either side. After a while spent cycling as fast as we could, we would find a spot to rest, often near water, fling down our bikes, eat sandwiches then lie back and chat or just be quiet together enjoying the expansiveness before us. Kirsten lives in London now, but she sent me a picture of a bike ride she went on the other day. Time and space disappeared in my imagination and I felt like I was with her again, wheeling speedily, surrounded by green; young, breathless and free.
I am blessed to have had that time and freedom to explore as I grew. It helped me become the reflective, imaginative person I am. I hope that this era, with all the sadness and restrictions woven into it, also makes more space for children of all ages to get a taste of the joy and freedom that nature offers so generously.
Every day seems very much the same at the moment. All our time is taken up with work and childcare and worrying we’re not doing all we should for either. Meetings and family visits and pub quizzes and storytime and comedy nights and funerals have all turned into video calls: the same grid with different faces; laughter and weeping interrupted by the same network failures and muted microphones.
Nobody has any news, unless it’s an infection, a recovery, or a death. Sometimes, one of us has been to the shops. Our birthdays are marked by the exchange of objects we already had, wrapped in newspaper left over from back when there was news. We might finally read all those books we bought, since we can’t spend an afternoon in a bookshop browsing for new ones—which in truth, is what we always preferred.
Yet our children are brand new every day. They take first steps and say new words. They learn that grandad lives on a screen now, and he teaches them to make finger-pop noises with their mouths. They discover bees and bubbles and birds and banana bread. They draw pictures and write letters. They form inexplicably strong attachments to particular socks.
There is a whole world inside them. We could spend forever locked down in it and never finish exploring.
And so it is within all of us: eternally new worlds, which even the best-travelled have seen only a slice of. Perhaps we have self-isolated in the comfortable parts of them, staying in the homes we have built in ourselves, protecting ourselves from each other. Perhaps this is the time for an expedition; a great surveying of the worlds we are. A chance to discover all that we can be, as though we were children again.
We might as well try. It’s not as though we can go to the pub.
It was so interesting talking to Mark, someone who was working from home, as was his wife, and jointly looking after a one year old. Having more time with the little one was very much seen as a positive effect of the requirements of social distancing. This is very different from my situation as I live on my own, and am able to choose what I do with my time.
Unfortunately, it has been grim for me this past week or so. I sadly lost a nephew to the virus, and now a niece is in hospital very ill with it. My brother-in-law lost his mum and, although she was 93 and not in good health, the virus has caused added distress because he and his sister were unable to visit her, and there will not be the funeral they would have wanted. The same is true for my nephew’s family, and heart-breaking as it is, I have decided not to attend the funeral in person because of being in the vulnerable age group. I will be able to be part of it via a video link and my daughter will read the eulogy his family asked me to write. This week I also “attended” a video funeral of another friend, so know it can be done respectfully.
Coming to terms with things on a personal level makes you realise that all the statistics quoted are people who leave behind families and friends who will miss them.
Last week there were little rays of sunshine too. The young boy next door wrote me a delightful letter thanking me for the Easter egg I left for him and his sister. He is nine, and does not normally converse with the old (ish) lady next door, so it was lovely to think he had taken the trouble to do this, and drawn a picture of himself eating the egg!
I have a few birthdays in May and June to remember, and as I wasn’t able to stock up on enough cards before everything got more difficult, I made some using holiday photos. I enjoyed making them and remembering happier times. One of the photos was from a holiday last year in Corsica with my two sisters-in-law and a brother-in-law. We collected these stones on a deserted beach and made a little cairn to show how much we were enjoying having the whole beach to ourselves.
Happier times will come again, and hopefully we will appreciate them all the more.