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Written by Sarah Pletts for Jillian Woods’ Diary of a House Blog in New Zealand

 

From my window, I see an occasional car. The main road beyond is busier – buses, delivery vans and a blue flashing light go past. The park opposite is green and lush. One or two pedestrians and cyclists navigate to or from the super-market, corner shop, chemist or post office. A small construction site is still growing up brick by brick, in the next street. The towers of the financial centre of the city are in the far distance.

I heard a historian speak on BBC Radio 4 when there were only a few cases of Covid-19 in the UK. He said, “In the future we will speak of ‘before’ and ‘after’ Coronavirus.” Remembering that snippet of news interview now seems like ancient history. London – recently a thriving multi-cultural city of 9 million is now quiet enough to hear the birds sing.

We have lost people, lots of them. More have died than were killed in the London Blitz. Statisticians are the new eagerly awaited storytellers. The exact figures are endlessly quoted and discussed – a messy set of deductions, additions and multiplications.

An alarming number of the dead are from black/asian/minority/ethnic backgrounds. Many key workers are in this demographic. Despite the covert racism in ‘Brexit’ divisions, some of these doctors, nurses, carers and bus drivers are now being celebrated on the more often white pages of the tabloid on-line press. Yesterday, on my Zoom call at 11am we joined a UK wide minute of silence to honour the key workers who have died so far.

Despite recent fluctuations, the roads are still more like the quiet that happens when England plays a world cup match and every ‘white van man’ was at the pub watching the game.

I went to King’s Cross in the city centre for an emergency dental appointment. Usually one of the busiest thoroughfares in London, the Euston Road was sparse with traffic. Shops in the area were shuttered as most are elsewhere. The forecourt of Kings Cross station was eerily quiet. It has been my only foray out of Hackney in weeks.

Pubs are shut, many boarded up with the prospect of staying that way for months. London’s extraordinary cultural spread of theatres, clubs, galleries, restaurants and cafés are closed. Freelance creative people and those on zero hours contracts are at home with their normally insecure incomes slashed.

Food banks exist to catch some of those who fall between the funding gaps and ‘Universal Credit’s £94 a week, (if you’re lucky enough to navigate the system). People queue at our local food bank at two metre intervals.

All of city life is now calibrated in two metre gaps. We weave along pavements – jogging, walking, cycling two metres apart. For those who are not struggling to get to essential work, in home-made mask and latex gloves on busy rush hour (reduced service) tube trains, we head to the park for daily exercise.

The last six weeks have been sunny. This is almost as unusual as the pandemic situation. Sky blue skies, un-streaked by vapour trails are recording 35% of the normal pollution levels. While those who are ill struggle for breath, the rest of us can at least breathe deeply.

Despite the high population density, London is still a very green city. Parks are bustling with people taking their hour of exercise outside. A few rebels pause to sit and enjoy the newly fresh air. Most people move with purpose. We dodge the panting breath of seemingly healthy runners. Parents use ingenuity to entertain their kids with scooters, Frisbees and balls (no team games allowed).

I can tell you what I see, but more than ever, London is full of parallel universes. I can see what is visible in my neighbourhood from the limited time I spend outside. I have an idyllic view from my privileged perch. I am one of a large household of the well. Others are not so lucky.

I know over twenty people who have had the virus, been knocked out of circulation into their beds for a week or two. Acquaintances have been hospitalised. Friends of friends have died. I am not reporting from the front line. I fear that as this time ebbs, more grief, more trauma, and more loss of hope will be visible.

I have seen our Prime Minister Boris Johnson on TV. Known for his arrogance, he ignored his own advice to avoid shaking hands and stay indoors, and caught Covid-19. Returning to our screens with dark circles around his eyes, post virus, he continues to emulate Churchill’s cadences. Many of us hope that his brush with mortality will chasten him. We hope that this time will bring opportunities to implement greener less petrochemical industry friendly policies. But, there are indications of a disturbing urge from those in power to return to ‘business as usual’.

What are the positive signs in this time of Coronavirus? I enjoy cleaner air, quieter streets, raucous bird song. I am relieved to have some time out from social busyness. Time to re-assess our food chains feels necessary. I’ve planted my first vegetables. I love quality time at home eating lovingly prepared food together with my housemates. I appreciate the gratitude that arises for the good things we still have.

We chat to friends around the world, who are now as near as those a few miles away on-line, but as unreachable in person. “What’s it like in London?” they ask. I am not necessarily a reliable witness. I can tell you what it is like in this house. I have a sense of how it is for my immediate neighbours as we chat, calling across the garden fence or from our doorsteps. I have an impression of how it seems in this neighbourhood. Although cases of domestic violence have doubled, so I know all is not well behind closed doors.

There are different attitudes to this crisis among different generations, and different social demographics. Many are under huge pressure, but with a range of causes. While isolation is often really difficult, there are also ways in which people are coming together, helping each other and showing kindness.

There seems to be a quirky British eccentricity about ways in which we are showing solidarity – Monty Python meets the Royal Family.  The 100 years old Captain Tom Moore has captured the nation’s imagination by pushing his walker up and down outside his house in aid of the NHS. Guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye, he has so far raised twenty-nine million pounds.

Children are creating pictures of rainbows to put in their windows. Then at 8pm each Thursday, we clap. Doors and window are flung open, and for a good few minutes we applaud to ‘care for the carers’. Where we live this might include banging pans, cranking a football rattle or shaking Maracas.  Curiously charming, it does raise my spirits.

Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk, expert on trauma, recently said about the Global Coronavirus Crisis: “I think we are in a pre-traumatic condition, namely the conditions for psychological trauma are rife.” Whatever may be the causes, the statistics, the political and financial manoeuvres, we are experiencing a collective challenge. This will affect each of us differently on a personal level. I am mindful that for those who were already dealing with trauma or the chronic consequences of trauma, the threat of the virus and the consequences of illness, or of the lockdown itself, will add to the emotional load on the nervous system. Just as for those who are already dealing with underlying physical health conditions, the virus will add to the viral load on the immune system. London is a city that has a huge gap between rich and poor. For many there is little or no financial cushion. Old and young, frail or healthy face different threat levels. Key worker or unemployed, with inverse stresses. I don’t know how this crisis will unfold, and how many will face tragedy of one kind or another. Sometimes trauma comes with a visible wound, but often it lurks in PTSD, and other chronic conditions. During my own stay at home, I am glued to Carolyn Spring’s on-line trauma trainings. With whatever comes next, it feels as though these will provide important understanding for me to draw upon further along the curve of Covid-19’s impact.
www.carolynspring.com
www.besselvanderkolk.com

I am curious about this time of review, re-evaluate, retreat. It seems that for those whose work is absolutely necessary, there is a new respect. For many others, normal activity has been suspended and something different is taking place. At odds with the surge of growth that is happening outside, I am held back from the usual outpourings of social energy, of being out in the world. Instead, I am tending to new seeds. For me, this darkness is the compost for creative ideas to germinate. I am feeding my soil with the conditions for learning. I am taking in good food, wise words, sunshine and water. Alongside, I watch Dexter growing into a DJ. Named for this expression of rhythm and joy, he becomes more self-assured as he plays. He takes particular pleasure in sourcing tunes that will make us wiggle. We dance as he streams music out into the ether. What are you incubating?

There is a change to our regular physics of interaction. Like pairs of magnets, people are either driven together or pushed apart. It feels as though each household is trying to find a new equilibrium through being alone and seeking ways to reach out, or being together and seeking autonomy. Sewn into my wedding shawl, my mother embroidered me these words by Khalil Gibran, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness”. They speak powerfully to my need for ‘self-regulation’ time alone. We walk as a pair on the marshes observing a strict two metres from other members of the local community. We dodge people on the pavement as though we are avoiding the cracks. At home we come together in a group then break apart, creating an ebb and flow of connection. This motion allows us to share food, build conversations, cuddle up, but then we return to our individual spaces to work, to be creative, or to contemplate. I imagine a cosmic eye observing this molecular pulsing dance.

I am not a key worker. I am not experiencing a life endangering situation. This household is currently well. I am conscious that anything may change at a moment’s notice. I am choosing not to take more risks than necessary. However, this leaves me feeling powerless and impotent. I feel as though I am not offering much to my local community. I love seeing pictures of rainbows made by children appear in windows as I walk past each morning. So, I made this banner to offer a simple expression of love, of solidarity. Some people look and smile as they pass. It felt as though this was something I could actually achieve. I hope it may serve as a reminder to value kindness, and to feel connected.

“In navigating this complex web of fact, fear, imagination and physiology, a palliative care doctor is a scientist with a hint of shaman.” Rachel Clarke is one of these scientist/shaman working with the living, who happen to be dying. In ‘Dear Life’, she manages to articulate the challenges of being a medical doctor with a big heart on the front line of end of life care. She takes us with her, on her journey to become a doctor, combined with the roles of mother and daughter. It is her warmth as a person that comes through in her writing and allows us to connect with her experience. She recognises the importance of fundamental values like kindness, listening, and as she puts it, “patient, not disease, centre stage”. She is a representative of an underfunded sector of an under-funded NHS, a pragmatic yet passionate doctor. She recognises how, “patients oblige, comply, obey; they cannot risk dissent when so much power is concentrated in medical hands.” She is a powerful advocate for “small acts of kindness, and simple touch to transcend primal fear.” She doesn’t shy away from facing issues of ‘desperation medicine’, which is a tempting treatment avenue to follow when including death in the conversation around life-limiting conditions is avoided. She is wise and understanding as she accompanies patients and their families, navigating hospice life together. “I forgot how much it hurts to love someone while losing them”, she admits. Her descriptions of the vibrant life on a hospice ward are inspiring and life affirming. She shows us what is possible in the face of difficulty. “In the absence of cure there is still love, joy, togetherness, smiles, tears, wonder, solace – all of life, only concentrated.” Her own grief unfolds through the narrative when her father is diagnosed with cancer. This becomes the lens which deepens her clinical practice and reminds us that “grief, like love, is non-negotiable”.

“You really look after your teeth”, were the muffled words from behind the mask. “I need to”, I think but don’t say, as I reflect on my complex dental history. I am extremely grateful to this unfamiliar dentist who is peering at the hole in my mouth where a crown has been dislodged. A sharp edge on the remaining fragment of tooth is lacerating my tongue. He wrestles to fit a metal clamp over my tooth in thick black latex gloves. I would smile if I could at the choice of pink dental dam. I am lucky. Not only does my dental practice have an emergency clinic during the ‘shut-down’, but this particular dental problem does not require an ‘aerosol generating procedure’, ie drilling. Tooth drilling is only to be carried out in the most extreme emergencies according to the latest government guidelines. I recommend spending the extra time to brush behind that wonky molar, to floss or use a tee pee. This dentist anticipates that routine dental care is unlikely to be available for months ahead. I shall be nibbling carefully next time I eat a piece of rustic toast, and will brush diligently afterwards.

I am devoted to connection face to face, through touch, heart to heart, and in community. Restricted from happening in person, meetings beyond our household now take place on line. From the vantage point of my childhood, we are now in Star Trek technology. I feel deeply conflicted about virtual engagement, but also see the advantages of connecting far and wide without leaving home. Those who can’t afford or can’t cope with the technology are penalised. I feel reluctant about holding space on line. Others lead as I join meetings, share feelings in this way. Communicating using both face and the sound of your voice hold me closer than a disembodied voice alone. Recently I have followed my Pilates class, while seeing the décor of each student’s home. I have lain under a blanket while others snuggle up elsewhere for a sound bath. I have breathed with a screen full of other open mouths and rising chests. I have attended work meetings with participants across the UK, and I have jiggled as a tiny form on a tessellated screen with dancers around the globe. I am curious to watch how our digital selves will evolve. Most of all I value the people I am lucky enough to be in proximity to. Opportunities for skin to skin connection, for conversations within two metres are highly prized.

Many things that are not essential have been foregone. Enough food is fundamental. Now each item on the shopping list must be considered and foraged for. I feel as though I am giving each provision due thought, attention and gratitude. A month ago, we had a surfeit of lemons. I froze a bag, and since then have been grating frozen lemon onto dishes and into mugs of hot water. Today we bought more lemons. Hygiene protocols mean that we wash each item that comes into the house. Tony efficiently presides over the sink as our ‘Supplies Operations Manager’. I admire the spectacle of sunlight playing on zest. Lemons, then broccoli and leeks jostle in soap suds. I cook supper. Ingredients are invited like favoured guests to join our culinary spread. Each flavour is a valued addition. Shades of green from roast fennel to avocado and spinach salad with pesto dressing decorate our plates. Mushroom and coconut sauce on pasta spirals completes the tableaux. ‘When life gives you lemons…’

In the midst of restrictions, here is beauty. Nature is unfurling full steam ahead, ripe with life. Blue sky and fat white blossom at its most open. Each day more petals fall like confetti. The cherry tree in South Millfields has no regard for pandemic regulations. Leaves are coming, blossom showers in celebration of spring. I walk the dogs, gulp in fresh air, blue sky, sunshine and trees. At night I pad across the carpet to the bathroom where moonlight illuminates the toilet. I feel my cells respond to larger forces. Sweat, then cool keeps me awake at 2am, in my new day by day existence. Walking the dogs, anchored by nature’s disregard for anxiety holds me steady. This is my spiritual practice. I delight in watching noses twitch in the breeze, feel grounded by capturing shit in small green plastic bags. This cherry tree is now a place of pilgrimage. I breathe it all in, stand less than two metres from its trunk.