Archives for posts with tag: hope

‘It would be an exotic moment without rush, without engines;

we would all be together in a sudden strangeness.’

Keeping Quiet – Pablo Neruda[i]

I know you, Pandemic, I see what you’re doing out there. I know your ways, I think.

And I wonder if I stare it down, if I look it straight in the face, it will feel easier? I’ve personified the chaos, in a feeble attempt at agency and my thoughts remind me of dealing with the Grief Monster in sudden widowhood, how the creation of a creature seemed to give us some sense of control.

I have been quiet for a few weeks now, while this new monster rages. I’ve been biding my time, allowing my thoughts to simmer. I worried, (I’m good at that,) that maybe I had nothing to say, no way to express my thoughts of the unfolding trauma. But it seems I was wrong; I was just dazed into numbness by the events. Of course, I’m used to being dazed, I’m used to the lockdown in my head when critical mass is reached and I switch off.

And that’s the thing, it’s all so familiar, this devastation, this savagery and fear. I know this. Sudden loss, a widow and a single parent overnight, I’ve got form. I know isolation.

Yet maybe my mental meandering is just another tool in my kit of coping, it’s a big kit now, heavy, but it serves me well. So, I bring it back down to the personal, to the individual, to the story I know inside out. I look from my window to the quiet streets and feel the ripples of people disorientated, lost, grappling for something to rely on. But where does it leave me? My tiny world, the universe inside me, my loss and fears like the fronds of a fern, are mirrored now, mapped out and scaled up to the global suffering, like the stardust arms of our Milky Way, holding us tight as we cry. Swirls within swirls, tears merging, the individual and the whole, our private pains all part of each other’s. In our anguish and separation, we are never more together.

As I look out of my window, the birdsong seems louder against the quiet streets, the planet readjusting and my letterbox clatters, an unseen hand has touched my post, a stranger in shorts with his bag strapped around him, doing essential work, keeping things ticking. In the almost silence I feel the planet buzzing, the nurses, doctors, trained and strained, working to exhaustion, flooded with compassion but unprepared for this, the community carers, sustaining the elderly, my elderly, my parents supported by others. And the grieving, the unseen, rocking in pain and each digit in the daily statistics is someone’s universe imploding.

And when my newsfeed became too much, I found myself curling inwards, down and out.  My window of tolerance had been reached so I went far away. I took myself off and hid out in Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen. I learned knife skills and in my slicing of scallions and on the perfect plates of his pomme purée, I calmed down. It was a safe place, away from the media and their terror machine, away from the soaring death count. And I rested for a while but then returned.

It’s true to say that ‘critical thinking without hope is cynicism and hope without critical thinking is naïveté.[ii] so I raised my head above the parapet and peered back out in search of balance. I’d realised my quixotic railing at the Government’s windmills wouldn’t help me, neither would wishing for utopian ideals when we come out on the other side.

So then came the search to normalise, now as back then, I scour and plunder, I seek out information on how we might get through this. In widowhood, my coffee table became piled high with teetering tomes of those who’d broken before me, self-care and guidance, spiritual comfort, woo-woo weirdness and scientific rigour of the facts. I’d consume and devour anything that gave me a grip or a foothold in my perilous new world. And now I feel a similar pattern. I’m gathering pandemics on my pc’s open tabs; I’m leaning into the past to see what lies ahead.  The trouble is, it’s just a guide, it’s a consideration of what went before. Like my stack of grief books, they could only hint, they didn’t map my journey, it was mine alone. They might have signposted features of the landscape but my terrain, like everyone’s, is unique, and this pandemic, while resembling the maths and graphs of those before, is still unknown. No amount of planning can prepare you for the event when it finally hits. Like pre-grieving ahead of the inevitable, it’s pragmatic, a dry run in its own way but when it’s real, then all bets are off. I see it now in the Government’s scurrying, scrabbling for resources not purchased in time, in how we turn to think-tanks for the answers, and though they might have prepped and planned, they’re still fallible. They fail.  So, flexibility from the model is essential, hindsight, as everyone accepts, is a glorious thing. But if all these decisions were mine, what would I have done?

So, I travel back to the plague, in the middle ages where quarantines began, where ships were anchored outside the coastal cities, waiting forty days before the sailors could set foot on land. In the 14th century trade and colonization already linked countries, passing wares and sickness around the globe.

And onward to 1918 where the Spanish flu found troops cramped and cooped, dreaming of home, the waves slopping and slapping up the sides, no chance for social distancing as they lay close, and the virus travelled around the globe in months but now with our much smaller world we can share our germs in hours.

But good must come from these dark days now, it will find a way, like the beautiful boulevards, designed and built after cholera, after the open sewers of Paris were purged and swept away.

Still, I have to rail in my Pollyanna[iii] tendency, but it’s as rife as Covid19 itself. It’s our expertise we need to pass around now with the R&D teams across the continents working on a vaccine to protect us all. It’s a chance to share our goals, an opportunity to act for the common good.

I look from my window and watch as the most beautiful of days begins, as a springtime  sun shines down on us, on those waking up crippled by grief under its rays, staff crushed by the sights in the hospitals, the tipping point of people doing their best against nature at its worst. But as the day promises to heat up, the sky turns to a mothering blue, a swaddling in gentle heat, as if to soothe, as if to hush us in our trembling.

Sometimes I think of springtime in Belsen, of blossom falling outside the camps, coating the ground like soft fallen kisses and, whether for a second, for a heartbeat or two, the sun would lift their eyes to the skies, would lift their spirits for a moment.

And we are linked, inextricably, we are one person, suffering, then as now, their pain, is our pain and through this ravaging, hope remains as prevalent as the virus, but its curve will never flatten out.  Awareness of our fragility is laced with resilience and a need to find meaning in our vulnerable lives. In ‘The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology’ Erich Fromm reminds us to ‘find a frame of reference…to escape the experience of utter helplessness, disorientation and up-rootedness.’ but that ‘only through full awareness of the danger to life can our potential be mobilized for action, capable of bringing about drastic changes in our way of organizing our society.’[iv]

And so, the day heats up and we remember when we were free to run, splashing into the surf, giggling in the arms of others, chattering in cafes, pub gardens filled with noise and clatter. And under this savagery, in this necessary pausing we see the minutia of our lives, the reality that we had everything all along. On our shuddering planet, through this global bereavement, it feels as though we took our previous world for-granted, not because it didn’t matter but because we never could conceive of it being torn away.

As people plan to pop out in the sun, to experience its rays in their gardens, in a small way, without a boot full of beach balls and towels, as our appreciation and gratitude for the tiny things grows alongside the death toll, I find it so familiar.

I know this place, this smallness, revelling in the human moments, recalling the heartfelt hug of a friend, the sun stroking the side of your face, a shared joke or being held as the pain raged up through you. It was always about the individual acts of connection, the unseen intricate web of us all. I feel it as I stand by my front door in the cool of Thursday evenings, as I clap and tears roll in the comfort of strangers, in the solidarity, on our socially distanced doorsteps of home.

Human spirit, above all other considerations is the way, to lift up, despite Covid19, and because of it. It’s that bond between the individual and the universal, the threads that bind us tight through the centuries. As humans we have immense capacity for lifting each other up, while we hide away, ‘self-islanding.’[v]

The dissonance between the joy of springtime sun and the realities of the bleakness in the wards seems to underline our fragility, our fleeting space against the force of nature. I remember walking home in sunshine in the first spring since my loss, and how I objected to its glare and the chiffon people all around me while I tried to drag my granite form back home. It seemed improbable that the sun could shine and now, on these blossoms filled days it seems to tease, to remind us of when we lived without the fear of now. But outside my window trees are turning sap green in hope, and every bud is a reminder that this will pass, and something else will come. Leaves will stretch out and each one seems to wave to me while I sit inside, saying wait a while, just stop, hold tight and hold on.

I remember speaking with my counsellor, in the early months, in the dense fog of sudden bereavement. I told her that that I could not move, I had ceased to have any forward motion and from the point of view of the outside world, I was stationary. I told her of the Taoist principle of Wu Wei,[vi] creating action through in-action and of the uncarved block, of something left to its natural state. She didn’t seem to comprehend my stillness and why I felt comfort in the stopping. She referred to herself as a Bereavement Visitor, and she perched on the edge of my silent sofa, in her coordinated colours and oversized wooden beads, peering into her small diary at the end of every session. When she asked ‘would you like to see me again?’ I always answered ‘yes,’ despite our occasional breaches and misses, where our world view had collided. But she insisted that I had been active and so I let it ride, I let it go. One of those moments, so frequent, when someone said or did something that jarred, words that screwed me up on the inside, but I learned to let them pass. I knew in my stillness, in my isolation from the churning world outside, that in my pausing I would regain, I would catch my breath against the tumult of emotions.

And I am reminded of Wu Wei now in our global stillness, while the virus rips though towns. This pausing, like trees in dormant winter, appearing to be static, waiting, biding their time until it’s safe to reveal themselves again. Like the split second of stillness between an in and an out breath, and the fact that silence ‘remains, inescapably, a form of speech and an element of dialogue.’[vii] This enforced opportunity for hush is dialectic, relational to our culture of incessant noise.

But we’re not too good at waiting right now, yet ‘waiting isn’t an in-between time’[viii] although it feels like it, in these instant-add to basket-on demand days. We like prompt resolution, immediate answers, on double speed YouTube vids because we don’t have time. But now time is all we do have, waiting for a vaccine, waiting for isolation to end, for permission to run free again but as Wordsworth states, sometimes solitude can be gracious.

‘When from our better selves we have too long been parted by the hurrying world.’[ix] Like the structure of Hindu temples a progression of rooms reducing in size until the smallest with the statue, a communion, an essential stripping away of all distraction. And so, we come face to face with ourselves, highlighting our work-in -progress from which we try to hide. It is with hope like a glisk[x] that ‘we must pass through solitude and difficulty, isolation and silence in order to reach forth into the enchanted place.’[xi]

But it’s that sense of impotence against it all, now as then. So, it’s back to baby steps, the phrase used liberally by the widowed community, a mantra which we pass around between ourselves when reality becomes too much. That’s all we can do. So, we’re indoors and we have food and Wi-Fi and that’s enough. I’m powerless against the chaos and carnage in the hospitals, I can clap but I can’t fund the shattered staff.

There’s a sense of being at war with this microscopic enemy, unseen but ever-present behind our daily life. I think about my parents, children in WW2, air raid shelters in the back yard, sitting out with flash lights waiting for the all clear from the bombs. I imagine they must have grown accustomed to that on-amber feeling, as I have done. My familiar foes of hyper vigilance and anxiety are often lying in wait for me, skilled assailants in the art of ambush.

 And I think of my grandfather and the assailants in his world. He was a caster, a miner, in the unrelenting harshness of his days. As a young man in his teens he fought in WW1, but he never spoke about his time as a prisoner, the images from the Japanese camps were locked away inside him, while he raised a family, toiled the allotments, providing daily veg for his three girls. And I think of my grandfather with his voiceless memories, his calloused hands planting sweet-pea seeds, bringing beautiful blooms back to their two-up two-down terraced house. It’s these moments of value, of joy amongst the suffering that resonate and call out now.

Before the pandemic separated us all, a good friend gave me sweet-pea seeds. I was never much of a gardener but I will plant these out soon like my grandfather did, and remember the resilience in my genes, our careful contouring[xii] and our inherent pull to hope.  I will feel gratitude for these moments of stillness, this enforced retreat from the speed of our world, a chance to reconsider how I live.

But I can consider this from my sofa, and we have Netflix, we have food in our first world cell. And I think of others in Brazilian slums, huddled under cardboard and tin, families living on top of each other, with no gardens to watch the birds, no space, no sanitation, no antibacterial wash to clean their hands. Yet I’m reminded of our alikeness, that they’re just different versions of me and our son, people like us but clutching cups of water instead of scrolling on iPhones.

As Marcus Aurelius points out, ‘it has long been shown that we are born for community’[xiii] so evident now in the swathes of people signing up to be volunteers, reaching out to strangers, groups of helpers springing up like the trees coming into bud.

And there’s something calming in the understanding that we’re all the same. In this illusion of separateness, from slums to sidewalks, refugee camps to condos, my grandfather’s tiny terrace to our home, we are all linked.

I know this place, this waiting, this sense of homesickness while still at home. That familiar searching for a feeling of safety that you get when you close the front door. But you close the front door and the feelings are still there, that marrow deep yearning for it to be a different world. And as we creep into another week by ourselves I remember counting back then, in bereavement’s bleak beginning. I used to note the tiles in the splash back behind my oven. There are twelve of them. I used to count the days, then tiles turned to weeks and months, stood stirring something, noting how my metric had changed and the tiles which represented so many hours, then marked out many weeks. Now I’m still marking time, a prisoner in my mind, ticking up not down.

I hope we’re not still here in many weeks, I hope enough has changed but now, as then, a new normal will emerge. I’m so used to waiting, to just being, and the solidarity with the unseen, the philoxenia,[xiv]a balm to our wounds in the kindness of strangers. Hour at a time, minute by minute, stepping with care into our changed reality and whatever lies beyond.

The blossom waves to me from outside my window, so joyous, ‘all froth and flutter, like swathes of taffeta’[xv]around a bride. The birdsong bookends our days and they sing out, emphatic. I wonder what they’re saying? They’ve seen it all before, maybe they’re trying to tell us that we’ll be ok?

Despite our hiraeth[xvi]we gather strength, we come up with a new plan. We have hope. Always. And we thole on.[xvii]


[i] https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/05/28/keeping-quiet-sylvia-boorstein-reads-pablo-neruda/

Accessed 17/04/2020

[ii] https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/02/09/hope-cynicism/

Accessed 17/04/20

[iii] https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/pollyanna

A person who believes that good things are more likely to happen than bad things, even when this is very unlikely.

Accessed 19/04/2020

[iv] https://www.brainpickings.org/2020/03/22/erich-fromm-revolution-of-hope/

Accessed 17/04/20

[v] Macfarlane, Robert (RobGMacfarlane) Word of the Day: “isolate” – to place apart, to stand detached from one’s surroundings.

From the Italian “isolare”, “to reduce to an island”; itself from Latin “insula”, “island”.

In Welsh, “self-isolation” is “hunan ynysu”, literally “self-islanding”.

04/04/2020 07:00. Tweet

[vi] Hoff, B. The Tao of Pooh, 1989, (Mandarin Paperbacks, London, UK), p68

[vii] https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/07/06/the-aesthetic-of-silence-susan-sontag/

Accessed 17/04/20

[viii] https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/12/17/jason-farman-delayed-response/Accessed 17/04/20

‘Waiting isn’t a hurdle keeping us from intimacy and from living our lives to the fullest. Instead, waiting is essential to how we connect as humans in the messages we send. Waiting shapes our social lives in many ways, and waiting is something that can benefit us. Waiting can be fruitful.’

[ix] Storr, A. Solitude 1997 (Harper Collins, London) p202

[x] Macfarlane, Robert (RobGMacfarlane) Word of the Day: “glisk” -sunlight glimpsed through a break in the clouds, a fleeting glance at a glittering sight, a brief glow of warmth from fire that’s burned low, a sudden flash of hope in the heart.  (Scots) 06/04/2020 07:00. Tweet

[xi]   https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/05/28/keeping-quiet-sylvia-boorstein-reads-pablo-neruda/

Accessed 17/04/2020

[xii] Macfarlane, Robert (RobGMacfarlane) Word of the Day: “contouring” – when traversing steep or unsure ground, picking a path that holds its height.

On the hill, as in life, a means of staying steady, of keeping level even when the going is rough, the world falling away to one side or the other. 05/04/2020 07:00. Tweet

[xiii] Aurelius, M. Meditations 2006, (Penguin Random House, London, UK) p41

[xiv] Macfarlane, Robert (RobGMacfarlane) Word of the Day: “philoxenia” – lit. ‘friendship to/love of strangers’ (Greek Φίλοξενϊά). Kindness shown to people unknown; hands opened in care to those in need; tenderness offered across time & space. An ancient virtue for modern times. 08/04/2020 07:00. Tweet

[xv] https://www.janeylfoster.com/2020/04/17/white-cloud/

Accessed 17.4.2020

[xvi] https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/09/18/dreaming-in-welsh/

‘To feel hiraeth is to feel a deep incompleteness and to recognise it as familiar. Mae hiraeth arna amdanot ti. There’s a homesickness on me for you.’

Accessed 19/04/2020

[xvii] Macfarlane, Robert (RobGMacfarlane) ‘Word of the Day: “thole”- as a noun, the ability to bear hardship. As a verb, to endure patiently, to slog through tough times; “to thole on” (Scots). 16/04/2020 07:00. Tweet

April 16th

It was bitter in Paris, the wind sliced across our faces like a knife but it was Easter, an adventure, of sorts and everything was giddy, new.  

I’d stared through the window watching the propeller on my first ever flight, as though I alone kept the plane in the air, as though sitting by my fiancé and opposite the air hostess, my only job was to control the wings. 

It was twenty-one years ago, our second holiday and it sparkled and danced like the lights across the Seine. 

Despite trawling around Tourist Information Centres on a heaving Easter weekend, we were ok. Despite our desperation for an upgrade from the dilapidated B&B and the hauling of our luggage down the rues and boulevards to the new one that we found, we were still fine. And ushered to a cramped room by a spherical hotelier who beamed and pointed to the spiral stairs to breakfast, we settled in. Carefree with croissants and we unpacked.

We ticked off attractions like you do when you’re invincible and the icy wind didn’t bother us. It took pieces out of us thoughas we crossed the square to Notre Dame and battered us as we stood with everyone else, waiting for the warmth of her arms.

And we shuffled and we inched. In the darkness and smell of ancient wood I lost myself. I remembered the floor in that sacred silence, the air that hummed and buzzed with rustling tourists, I remembered the thick smell of dust and sweat and little more. Wrapped up in Our Lady I was taken ill, I was helped to sit down somewhere away from the crowds and I saw feet, lots of them, the shoes of my fiancé and those of a strange woman whose name we never knew. 

And this morning while ash settles in the streets there, while people lift up their eyes to view the savage route of flames, I think of the lady who came to help usAnd she’s a memory of a warm patterned skirt, oranges, yellows and browns, swirls and circles like flames around her feet. She sat while I regained myself, called us a taxi and stayed with us until it came. I never saw her face but had a sense of her on my left, she wished us well for our marriage, blessed us with healthy children and was gone. 

And I think of our lady today, I wonder where she is in this moment, if she thinks of Notre Dame and the couple who she helped years ago. Does she remember the young women, who only saw the stone floor of the Cathedral but who is tied to it now, somehow. There in Paris, in the coldest of Easters, the ancient monument became a gatekeeper to their life.

The light falls over the place where the Spire had been, and deep inside there is the echo of a woman sitting. And she will be rebuilt and carry on. 

Post Script

April 17th

We married one year later and as I wake to thick fog, it engulfs my town, my road, my mind, like the smoke engulfed the Spire and I am tumbling down into the structure, cascading in the edifice, sparks and flames mix with blossom, with confetti. They float around me, glorious, transient, burning up in the atmosphere of the day, in the flickerings, the fleeting gasps of time.

Twenty springs have passed, twenty bursts of blossom and it is full now, resplendent, magnificent. It swishes around in my peripheral vision like swathes of ivory taffeta, like a girl. And it will age, fall and flutter to the ground, to become part of the soil that feeds the tree. Until next year and she will be back to bloom again.

Time itself, our companion on the journey, folded into Parisian rubble and the strength to rebuild, striving, resilient, fragrant with hope.

Always – in the memory of blossom. 

xxx