“Close your eyes, listen to this recording of the sound of rain on a window. Imagine yourself, warm and dry inside a library. What libraries do you remember being in? Where would you like to be now? Imagine that in this library, on the shelves, are all the books, magazines and DVDs that you’ve read during your life. What has reading meant to you at different stages in your life? You might want to go to a shelf and pick a book you remember enjoying. Where were you? What was happening at that time?”
What a powerful opener Jolene gave to us, leading to us having so much to say to each other! Just as the people reading in a library may, in their minds, be travelling in many different directions, those of us on the Zoom call had a variety of experiences to relate, and much to think about afterwards as we wrote up our individual pieces for this week’s post.
Our spirits were so lifted, after we’d discussed entertainment, past and present, in the Zoom break-out rooms. Nury, originally from Iran, explained how much he appreciates British humour, especially the old situation comedies he’s been watching on TV, such as Porridge and Only Fools and Horses. It was lovely to hear his chuckles. Thank goodness for television, social media and online arts, helping us now through the challenges of social isolation: a sentiment we all shared!
Family and friends featured strongly in our memories from our younger days, with or without television, playing games both outdoors and in. Read on for our recollections of those simpler, more carefree times.
There was lots of laughter, and many smiles, as we shared our stories of a variety of celebrations and special occasions. Some of us shared treasured memories of birthday celebrations in the past, as well as our experiences of the recent inventive ways in which we’d been able to celebrate birthdays in spite of the lockdown.
We also described special gatherings of family and friends to celebrate retirement, weddings, anniversaries and Christmas, as well as bigger public celebrations, including jubilant crowds following a football triumph and even a traditional village celebration to mark the end of the bubonic plague, over 350 years ago!
Food (especially cake!), drinks, music and games played important roles in many of our festivities, as you’ll see in the stories which follow.
Jolene had asked us to choose an object from our homes to bring with us to the Zoom meeting, maybe something we hadn’t thought about recently, but which had a particular meaning for us. As each of the items was held up to the screen for everyone else to see, we heard fascinating stories behind the chosen objects. They had stirred powerful memories: of our childhoods, of the special people who gave them to us, the people and places we associated with them, the love, the music and the magic in our lives.
The theme of food from past and present proved to be a powerful memory trigger this week. With our eyes closed, Jolene invited us to not only picture but to smell food from the past. Our subsequent conversations included many memories from childhood of food being grown, shopped for, cooked and of course, eaten! Our reflections went far beyond the meals themselves, being intertwined with memories of our parents or grandparents, their skills and the efforts they made to provide for us.
Jolene began by inviting us to reflect, with gratitude, on our current home. She reminded us of what Alberto had said, the first week we met under lockdown, about our relative comfort compared to other places in the world. With closed eyes, she asked us to be thankful as we pictured the room in which we were sitting, and to focus on something within it that was special to us. Then, if we wished, to travel to another part of the house and do the same.
2nd May 2020. A new month and a new theme for our discussions, The view from my window, which Jolene started by reading us a poem. Then followed a visualisation in which we closed our eyes, reflected on the view from the room we were in at the moment, and remembered views from other windows in the past. We also imagined looking through the windows at ourselves. It was a powerful exercise, prompting much discussion and the written pieces which follow.
On Saturday 11th April, the ways in which the lockdown is bringing back memories of the past, and how we’re coping with the present, continued to be a fascinating topic. Four of us who’d returned to the Zoom get together were joined by three others, and our conversations in pairs, followed by a lively group discussion, led to the following contributions written up afterwards. They are presented in a sequence suggested by Jolene, to reflect the up and down nature of our collective experience.
On Saturday 4th April, after a warm welcome and a breathing exercise to help us relax, Jolene divided the six of us into pairs using Zoom rooms. Our topic for discussion, in this time of social distancing, was:
“What echoes, parallels and memories of the past is the current situation bringing back for you? And how is the past helping you make sense of what is happening now?”
Although our ages vary, we found we all had experiences from which to draw strength. It was fascinating to report back afterwards and discover some similarity in our previous experiences of isolation. It was also uplifting to share optimistic thoughts for the future.
Read on for extracts from the stories we wrote up individually later on in the week.
“At the beginning of 1974 to reduce the strain on dwindling coal stocks (the knock-on effect of oil producing countries restricting supply greatly exacerbated by a miners’ strike) the government of the day placed severe restrictions on the use of electricity. All users deemed to be not essential were only allowed three days of use. Also, TV broadcasting was reduced and I particularly recall that football clubs were forced to bring forward the kick-off times of their matches to save the electricity which would have been used by the floodlights. As the crisis worsened the mad rush to buy candles was mirrored by the recent panic buying of toilet rolls.
In 1976 the summer was so dry that the government was forced to introduce water rationing and I remember couples being encouraged to share baths to save water! I have a vivid memory of being in the main shopping area of Cardiff at the end of August when after nearly two months of very warm and dry weather it suddenly started to rain. A very unusual reaction took place as people who would in normal circumstances have scurried for cover first stood stunned as if they had forgotten how to behave in a downpour and then many celebrated in relief that the drought was over. This memory is particularly relevant as it gives hope that times of challenge do not last forever and we will eventually emerge the other side of the current trial and shows how happy and relieved we will be then.”
“It reminds me of moving to Sweden and everyone speaking a foreign language. I think the yearning I felt for something familiar/easy communication in those early days speaks to what’s going on at the moment. When I go out for walks, I’m half hoping to chat to someone, but then think how difficult and awkward it would be. That said, my experience of communicating through gestures would certainly come in handy!
During our one to one chat in the Zoom “room”, Tony suggested that good old-fashioned post is still important, alongside all the new technology. He mentioned how his friend, who reads the Guardian every day, cuts out the crosswords for him, collects them in an envelope and posts them through his letterbox. I got the impression it meant a lot to him to receive something physical in the post, more than simply having something extra to do.
Something really poignant that emerged for me during discussion of the 3-day week, and also of growing up in the immediate post-war period, was the refrain “I don’t know how my parents/older generations coped.” This reminded me that children might not be fully aware of what’s going on at the moment, or the scale of it, and that really made me reflect on how important it is to circulate histories about times of adversity and how these were overcome, to look to older generations to share experience and wisdom, and to learn. Also, the friendships that we have made still stand, and people are thinking of us even if we can’t interact with them directly.”
“When I was first married, we moved to live in North Wales where both my children were born. In some ways I felt more isolated then than I do now, because I didn’t know anyone, a lot of my neighbours were first language Welsh speaking. Most of my family did not have even house phones back then, so the only communication was by letter. Similarly, my son went on a gap year trek in the early 90s when he was 18. From Nepal, through Pakistan into the middle east. Away for 6 months and I think we had two letters in all that time, because he was moving around and often into remote areas.
Although we are physically isolated now, there are means of staying in touch through technology that were not there in the past. I have a regular zoom meet up with my son and daughter, and they are able to continue their work from home. Many of the groups I am part of are also using technology as a way of continuing activities. Of course, all of this is dependent on being able to access technology, and it must be very hard for people who are unable to do this.
Although I was born after the war, it must have been so much more difficult back then when you didn’t even know where your relative or friend was, and certainly couldn’t hear from them. Also, the restrictions back then on food and essential commodities. We have become so used to having access to whatever we want (not necessarily need), that these restrictions of goods and movement seem so hard, but another difference is that most of us have fridges and freezers so we can have food in reserve. From anecdotal reports and old newsreels etc, there seems to have been a spirit of support to each other in those awful times and that seems to be so now in many communities, and it is good to see that “war time” spirit to be there. Hopefully that will continue when we are all back into our busy lives.”
“When I was 20, I spent a year in Lyon, France, for the third year of my degree in English Literature and French. Although that was 1975, I’m reminded now of what it felt like in the first few weeks. I hadn’t imagined how different from being on holiday it would be, and how lonely I’d feel in a small room in a hall of residence, so far away from my family and friends. Letters became really important to me, especially since my parents didn’t have a phone. Even if they had had, it wasn’t easy to make an international phone call then, you had to go to the Post Office and arrange for them to put a call through to you in a telephone booth, and it cost a lot.
Now, I miss being able to be with my family and friends very much, but I’m so glad of the technology which not only means I can talk to them regularly, but I can see them via video links. Some of the groups to which I belong have carried on too, for example, my book group met via Zoom last Monday. I did make new friends when I was in France, but not as quickly as I have done in the last week or so through the WhatsApp group for our street! It was set up by a neighbour after Christmas, following a spate of burglaries, but it’s really come into its own now. As well as chatting online to neighbours I already knew, I’m regularly chatting to people who live further down the street, including some who are unable to go out at all as they are highly vulnerable. An unexpected silver lining, as everyone is helping each other in whatever ways they can.”
Alberto Velázquez Yébenes
“The current scenario brought me back to some old memories. Coming back home from a run, with empty streets in the dusk remind me of the summer days in Murcia when I was 15. No traffic, walking down the middle of the road.
It also brought me back to 6 years ago when I first came to England. I was very much focused in the present and living a day at a time. The big recession in Spain made me come to Manchester with just a few savings and a lot of uncertainty. It wasn’t scary, I was just very much focused on the good news and little things of every day and connecting massively with everyone around me. I can see now where all those connections brought me and how important all this has been during this period of time. I find that to be a very good lesson because in times of fear you might sometimes be inclined to think in the short term, whereas a healthier thing to envisage is the kind of person that you would like to be going forward and what the ” you” of the future will think of these times.
Everyone’s stories during the Zoom meeting reminded me of an article I read this week. It made me think how intense this crisis is coming across, whilst we are relatively comfortable because we have food, water, internet, etc. I say this with all respect and concern for the people struggling (homeless, or those losing their loved ones at the moment), but at the same time there are several situations, completely aside from the virus, and not only now but during the last decades, which have stricken people in different countries: shortage of water, food, wars in Yemen and Syria, floods, terrible diseases spreading like cholera, refugees dying in the Mediterranean… So, in a way, the situation we are experiencing right now is something, some part of the world has experienced far worse for years. I wonder if this will strengthen our empathy, if we will look at victims not only as abstract numbers, at poor conditions not only as if we were watching a movie…and so on.
Strengthening the community is something that can move us from isolation to connection, from panic to calm in a beautiful way.”
“I’ve had two really isolating periods in the past because of my health issues, so I’m used to occupying myself, but it’s wonderful how technology now helps. In contrast to my childhood memories of visiting a doctor with a big imposing desk, I had a recent friendly online conversation with my haematologist who sent out my medication afterwards. I’m grateful on many levels, I’ve benefited from research developments, and think of how awful it must be in refugee camps.
During the clap for the NHS on Thursday, my neighbours in the road all came to wave to me, which meant I felt included even though I can’t leave the house. The importance of communication reminds me of my mother in the war and how her friend used to write her letters. That’s inspired me to write to people who need me to do that. I wish other older people had the same access to technology and connection as I do.
I treasure little things, like the spring blossoms. My sister in law is making a time capsule with my grandson, who is 6, recording his feelings and experiences as we live through these strange times.”
We hope you have enjoyed our stories on this theme so far. As explained in the previous post by Jolene, the theme of “echoes from the past” will continue for the next two posts on this blog, before we move on to another theme.
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