It’s been a very strange Christmas, ending a very strange year.
Oxfordshire, where I live, went into tier 4 on Boxing Day, so all the shops closed and people were told to stay at home. Yet the Christmas decorations were still up - fully decorated trees in the streets, tinsel and baubles in the shop windows and lights in the streets and people’s homes. A very surreal experience - on the one hand there were messages about “Celebrate with friends and family! Be full of love, joy and good will towards all people!” It’s a call to immerse ourselves in all the old traditions that form such a deep part of Christmas, whether religious or not. Traditions that connect us with those who have gone before us and form a bridge to our future. And added to that, many of us had not seen our loved ones for many months, and were depending on that for our sense of wellbeing.
Yet the shops were closed and the streets were empty. The other, more current and worldly message, was to stay at home, don’t see people as you could kill them (or they could kill you). Stay apart, wear masks, don’t gather in any sort of joyful group (or any group at all). The only shops open were for food. We have been asked again to act as though we mistrust and even fear our fellow human beings, and of course while this is only sensible and I agree with the precautions, I, for one, find it profoundly upsetting and deeply unnatural.
Human beings are hard wired to connect and attach to loved ones (be they other people, animals or nature), and so keeping apart has had an as-yet-untold toll on mental health and wellbeing. I think we will be picking up the pieces of this for quite a while (anti-depressant prescriptions, for example, have apparently doubled).
This surreal experience was symbolised by a carol service I was invited to on video - I would normally go to my local church service as part of my Christmas traditions, so it seemed very sad to be watching it on a screen. It seemed to diminish it somehow - instead of being surrounded by singing and taking part in it, I was apart, disconnected and outside. The conductor was in a small Zoom window and the choristers were in a church, all standing 6 feet apart as usual, as though they were a danger to each other. I found it very depressing when the purpose was to celebrate community and joy and love. Of course these things are necessary and I follow the guidelines as much as anyone else. But I don’t like them.
Then the choir began to sing, and this wonderful sound came from my computer speakers. It was so beautiful, uplifting and harmonious and I thought - beauty can transcend all barriers. Love will survive this year, although sometimes it’s hard to see how when there is so much fear and judgement about. But I very much believe there will be good to come out of this, and I’m moved by such a strong demonstration that some things like heart and soul will always be stronger than temporary restrictions.
I don’t know about you, but I’m finding my emotions are quite variable. Most of the time I’m fine but occasionally I have a day where the slightest thing can set me off and I get quite emotional. I was in the front garden weeding the other day when the postman parked his van outside to deliver something to next door. As he returned to the van I said “Thank you for the work you’re doing”, and he tried to dismiss it with a wave of his arm but then caught himself and said "bless you, thank you” before driving off. I felt quite tearful for a while. I think it was the momentary contact between us - complete strangers in a terrible situation - that moved me, and how he had tried to get past his instinctive response.
It made me reflect on the different ways we are having to develop to make contact with each others in these strange times. It’s either by shouting at each other from 6 feet away, when I am used to hugging my friends, or by using technology. Video conferencing is a wonderful thing but it leaves me with a complex mixture of feelings. I am glad and grateful to see my friends online of course (and grateful to be able to still work online as well), but I also feel grief as they are so apparently near to me and yet I can’t hug them, or touch their arm as I normally would do. It’s like seeing a wonderful cake right in front of me and only being given a tiny taste of it. Some are warning against a Zoombie effect as we have video call after video call with apparent contact but with limited intimacy. It doesn’t always apply; I’ve had some very contactful moments with people - friends and clients - online. But I know that when it’s safe to do so I will be very glad to see people face to face again. My friends may be hugged a little too tightly when that day comes!
The Power of Fear and Love
It is shocking how much life has changed in just a couple of months. Most of what we were used to in our social infrastructure has been dismantled or put on one side, at least for a while. Everyone has had their community and daily life disrupted. We live with the possibility that our loved ones (or we ourselves) could fall ill and die.
It is easy to fall victim to feelings of despair, fear and hopelessness - indeed, when there are matters of life and death we are usually helpless. I see how fear is creating the reality around us, as people feel frightened for their families and in trying to protect them cause more suffering for others.
Looking for the meaning in all that is happening and finding anything that can sustain us is important. This is affecting every country in the world and is truly the most global event that I personally have ever experienced (except maybe the climate emergency, although that isn’t as immediate as the coronavirus). So it brings us together in a way - we are all suffering and fearful. Whilst national borders are being closed to prevent infection, the internal borders of humanity are relaxed. Globally, we are in this together. The virus bypasses race, gender, religion, nationality and all differences.
So we have the chance to experience and inhabit love too. We can, if we can bear to do it, allow ourselves to be guided by our love for others. That creates an entirely different reality, where we reach out (maybe virtually) to the elderly and vulnerable, or others in need. And this is happening: there are many stories of community and personal action that are clearly guided by love rather than fear. Positive stories are beginning to emerge from the ashes. Stories of people hearing the birds singing again in Chinese high rise cities that are on lockdown and where the traffic has been stopped. The Italians singing to each other to keep spirits high when they can’t leave their flats. Kindly acts of compassion where a British neighbour will contact another to ask if they need anything, and how they are.
I’ve been struck more and more by the old saying that thoughts and feelings create our reality - here it is, in action around us, right now. For our peace of mind, and for the sake of the greater community, I hope that we are able to be guided by the love inside us more than the fear.
Stay well, and stay open and loving.
I think you are very lucky if you get to my age (61) without any experience of grief. I've had quite a bit. And whilst I say 'lucky', of course, grief has helped me to become who I am, a deeper and more empathic person than I was before. So I'm not wishing it away. I had another lot just before Christmas and it reminded me just how ravaging and exhausting it can be whilst it’s present. A friend lent me a book called “The Wild Edge of Sorrow” by Francis Weller which I recommend - it’s gentle, poetic and deeply consoling.
There’s quite a bit of pressure in our society to move on from grief, to ‘get over it’ (I imagine it’s uncomfortable for others to witness and so they try to make themselves more comfortable by stopping the outpouring of sorrow). One of the ideas in Weller’s book is that “To counter the amnesia of our times, we must be willing to look into the face of the loss and keep it nearby. In this way, we may be able to honour the losses and live our lives as carriers of their unfinished stores.” This is an old thought that we should pay attention to the dead in the same way that we pay attention to the living. Indeed, I understand that there is a tribe of people somewhere in the world that allocates the role of Chief Rememberer to someone, and it’s their job to remember, honour and keep the traditions of their tribal ancestors and the tribal traditions and rituals. I occasionally meet someone who seems to be doing that for their own family, or even place of work, or profession.
In our busy, fast-paced and ever changing world honouring what has gone before can be difficult and undervalued. Of course it all needs to be kept in balance, we don’t want to simply live in the past. But I wonder if we have become out of balance and the pendulum needs to swing back a little. Particularly in these days of the climate emergency when there is loss all around us. We can’t keep ignoring it.
Someone has been telling me about how hard it is for them to begin their latest work project. To be completely honest, I can never completely understand problems with beginning things - I find it easy (middles and endings are much more difficult for me!). I love the excitement of having an idea, and seeing where it will take me, whether it’s a piece of art, a written piece, planning a Christmas outing to somewhere or even something like writing this blog.
I read a piece by the poet David Whyte the other day, where he was suggesting that when we begin something new, we are finding a new piece of ourselves (large or small). We can’t keep ourselves exactly the same when we start something new; we need to step over a threshold into an unknown, unexplored place in ourselves. And we also need to let go of our old self - the new thing, whether it’s a big international adventure or simply cooking a new meal we’ve never cooked before, means we cannot stay on the old side of the threshold. We need to allow ourselves to be changed.
As I reflected on this I thought about all the ideas I have that don’t get manifested into the world (whether new art methods or work projects) - I suspect that I usually just choose to ‘action’ the things that don’t require too big a change in myself. I regulate how much I change. Maybe I'm not as good with beginnings as I'd thought!