Welcome to our crisis

It’s not so bad in here. I’ll admit to a few existential hiccups. One of them is constantly forgetting we’re in a different world and carrying on for a second like nothing has changed. It’s an odd feeling when I remember a lot has changed. Does anyone else occasionally feel a flash of being in a movie that was written a long time ago?

The thing that weirds me out most is how quickly I seem to be adjusting. I’m not one of those people demanding our governments do things differently. Or writing to newspapers or posting outrage and fear on their Facebook pages or sending home remedies via messenger apps. I’m keen to be quiet and stay small. I am compliant with the new rules on travel and physical distancing. I’m apologetic when I need to poke my head above the parapet to stand too close to people in supermarket aisles or to ask for Ventolin at the chemist where they stress-laugh at me for not knowing they were cleaned out ages ago. There is a lot of stress-laughing going on, I have noticed.

My social media is all about posting my attempts to grow vegetables and uplifting things to read. My online book-club is a haven to escape to after the relentless barrage of news I can’t avoid when I go to work on the radio every day. I’m posting about being kind A LOT. I have become a living meme. I am a poster on your wall of a kitten hanging from a tree by one paw with a caption that says HANG IN THERE.

There is something in me I am only slightly ashamed of, which is ok with having quieter times. The alone times. I am good at this and my life before, just weeks ago was too busy, and too noisy and I kept getting ill because I was running too fast, doing too much, thinking too rapidly too often and full up.

I have wondered, of course I have, if the planet has felt like that too, these last few hundred years since we got a bit too clever for our own good and forgot we are connected to it, that we rely on its good health. I wonder if it feels like many of us do when we have taken on too much, but we don’t know how to stop or what to cut back on because it’s all become too normal, we think we need it. Now, like many of us, it’s sick and gone to bed with a gentle book to rest and rejuvenate and think about making big changes in its life. Who hasn’t considered that maybe we’re the virus, and COVID-19 is some kind of earthy immune system fighting to claw back some room to breathe. Literally anti-bodies.

I have wondered, of course I have, what the world will look like when we come out of this in three months or six months, or a year or more. Will there be substantially less of us? Will our grief cripple us or will it compel us to be present with our hearts? Will the air in our biggest cities remain cleaner? Will dolphins stay in waterways they had abandoned for so long? Will we decide there’s a lot to like about living more quietly? Will we remember the value of community and connection now the gap between the selfish and the altruistic is so clear? Will we stop thinking we can control on our own terms our natural surroundings and realise how utterly connected and dependent and vulnerable we are?

Small things are making me happy in my crisis. I’m re-reading books I read as a child, and I’m planting the off cuts of my kitchen scraps in pots in my garden and watching them grow. I’m particularly proud of my spring onions. Every day I visit the golden orb weaver that has set up an elaborate, glittering web across my back garden. She has chosen her spot well, she has many dinners wrapped up tight and tidy, and hung like a string of beads above her. We call her Mavis, after a song we like. I listen to the small birds shrieking in the trees outside my bedroom window, and it doesn’t escape me they are oblivious to everything but their turn to fluff their feathers in the bird bath.

So, in my crisis, I have learnt some things about myself.

I have learnt to sit with my love for my mum and my dad. I knew it before, of course, but I didn’t think about it. Now I am thinking of it all the time and I’m glad because they’re still here and I can miss them and ring them up even if I can’t go to see them. I’m 53 but I’m still their child and I still look to them both for comfort and find it in their voice. I’ll still be their child when I am older and my face is all deep lines, and my neck is loose and my skin is crinkling on my forearms. I’ll still be their child and my child will still be my child and her children will still be her children and so on. It is as it’s meant to be. I feel that very closely now, and I’m grateful for it.

I am reminded every day that the love of reading is a gift beyond measure and I am as lucky as someone who’s been born with a great talent to have this wonder at my disposal. It’s the comfort and thrill of being wrapped in an other-worldly cocoon crafted entirely and uniquely by the author and me. Together, with their words and my surrender, we spin our own magic never to be re-created in exactly the same way again, even when we read a book twice.

There’s something special right now in the physical books of my childhood. I have once again picked up my old copy of Anne of Green Gables. I found it originally in my own mum’s bookshelf as a kid and adopted it as my own, so I don’t know how long we’ve had it. My copy is tattered beyond being even vaguely readable to anyone else. Its spine is cracked, it’s heavily stained from age and years of eating vegemite toast and drinking milo while reading, whole passages are obscured but I have read it so often it’s easy to fill in the missing bits. Some of the pages are torn from an unfortunate habit I had as a child of absent mindedly tearing off the corners of books and eating them while I read. No I don’t know why either. There is so much love in this one book, of the story, of reading, of my warmest, safest memories as a deeply introverted child. I could not love it any more than I do. If I were a book and not a human being, this one reflects the most of me. I am keeping it by my bed.

I am appreciating the sense of my husband in our home and the feeling of peace that gives me. Even when we are not in the same room, his presence changes the air somehow to something warmer than when he’s not here. I would say, if I wasn’t thinking about it, that I just like it better when he’s here. I would say when he’s not here I can feel his absence as something missing and not right, and I don’t sleep well and I don’t relax in the same way. Even though I need to be on my own quite a lot. Even though I often crave silence. I think I’ll go and give him a kiss on the top of his head right now. (I did, and he was a bit puzzled if I’m honest. I probably did it intensely.)

I would not diminish what’s happening right now in the world. I’m afraid. My chest feels tighter most days, and I’m joking but not really with friends about what to do if we’re dying and there are not enough ventilators. I’m worried about those who are doing it very tough right now and those who find themselves unwillingly on the frontline. Those who have lost their safety net and those who never had one. I’m trying not to succumb to an urge to check if toilet paper’s back in the supermarket even though I have enough.

I’m also holding on to the deep belief that kindness gives you strength and the more tightly you cling on through fear the less secure you become. I think when we come out the other end of this, whatever that looks like, we will want to feel we were kind when we could be and that we looked for opportunities to show one another compassion. We will want to feel that we did our best.

That’s week one.

(pic: Chris Downey)

26 thoughts on “Welcome to our crisis

  1. I loved reading this, Gillian! You have given voice to many of my unspoken fears too. I am hopeful for a healing of the world but afraid for myself . But what the heck, not the time for moaning..I say to myself…stiffen up the sinews! Certainly I feel lucky, blessed to be here & with my husband & beloved family!
    Thanks & love

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  2. This is so on point Gillo. I do like the snippet where write about tearing the corners off pages and eating them – you’re in good company there! Olive Schreiner (Story of an African Farm) used to do much the same when she was excited about whatever she was reading. In fact, she chewed up and swallowed the editor’s letter where her first book was accepted for publication!
    Thanks for you insights.

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  3. This is the first piece of writing I’ve read for so many years – I “read” constantly – but it’s news and articles, recipes and research. Thank you x

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  4. Thanks so much for sharing your gift of writing as well as reading : )
    I’m inspired now to tuck myself away somewhere cozy soon and let my words spill. Such a mad week. A small funeral service in the family back garden for my Father who died suddenly at 91, non Covid -19 related. Now staying with my 87 y/0 mum and headed back into the workplace this morning after a week of bereavement leave , ready to donn the PPE .
    I will need the healing power of writing time to process my jumbled thoughts and emotions. Thank you Gill for helping me find the way.

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  5. Smiled through this, and then through little tears at the comment about your parents. I am also 53, my parents are in their 80s and well quarantined and safe, which is where I want them to be but I miss them. We are regularly FaceTiming, but it’s not the same. I miss my sisters too, one is in Bridgetown and I hate that I can’t go visit her. I know it’s temporary, and required, but it’s sad.

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