Saturday 2nd May 2020
Some of you will think this is the confession of a person who is barking mad. Some of you will think it is somewhat melodramatic. Some of you will recognise it. I hope those who recognise it feel somewhat less alone by reading it.
I have worked for the state for over thirty years, in the so called helping professions. But I struggle through my life, through many of the days, the winter months, each year and imposed isolation is not making this any easier.
I love my work, and it kills me.
I love my colleagues and they kill me.
I love my family. But being kept at home is driving me mad.
What then, is wrong with me?
I search for meaning in life, but at the moment it contains little. Previous to this isolation due to Covid 19, I would wake on a morning and run through the day. If I had work planned for it, work that involved meeting people, and relating to them, I would get up, on auto pilot and bath and dress, and leave the house. I was neither excited nor afraid, merely focussing on the role in front of me that day.
I am lucky that I have strong principles to guide me, or rather, values that I want to enact, to share with others, to prove as effective in supporting and enabling those around me. That drove me forward to the next train I had to catch or the coffee I could buy. In fact just writing that makes me visually flash between the different transport options, the myriad coffee shops I have used. In some ways focusing on the minutiae kept me going.
But now I have no need to get out of bed at a certain time. These are the difficult days.
Let me tell you about one morning a few weeks ago.
I woke at 8 and went to fetch my coffee and breakfast snack. I read the news on my phone, checked emails, then, knowing I was not needed by anyone until late afternoon, I set my alarm and lay back down.
But then my heart started racing. What on earth was wrong with me? I had no deadlines, no work to speak of, so why could I not settle? I knew, even as I felt my pulse quicken, that had I had several children to pack off to school, or meetings to conduct, I would not be in this heightened state, worrying about a tachycardia that came no doubt from nothing more than the freedom of time (and the coffee.) Time to worry. Time to ponder the meaning of life, my roles in it over the last thirty years. I hated the situation then for the freedom to self berate. I envied people I know who are catapulted into fast paced, problem solving jobs, their days measured out in patients, tasks, investigations. I also envy those who don’t have this innate need to ruminate, to examine everything from a number of angles, to subject each incoming piece of information to a critical work up. To be able to accept things for what they are.
At the age of 18 I anxiously awaited my A level results. It was the1980s. Before me lay the options I had at that time: do well and go off to University; do quite well and go off to Polytechnic; gain some low passes and start a diploma at the local technical college; fail everything, get a job in a sweet shop and marry my childhood boyfriend .
These options, in the hands of the gods, lay out in front of me like paths through the countryside where I lived. Did I prefer one to another? I couldn’t have told you. Aware that at that age I was probably able to do a number of different things and be satisfied enough with them, I felt that only fate would decide my true destiny. I did however have a small but niggling premonition that the more successful I was, the more complex my path would be. If I did get to university, it was 200 miles from home, and I knew I would be living, working and playing with people who were at that point still strangers. If I pursued a professional career, likely I would move around the country, possibly marry another professional. Face choices about work, children, promotion. If I stayed locally and married my sweetheart, maybe life would be calmer. Fewer choices, but clearer direction. Babysitter on tap if needs be, school friends round and about, a community I already belonged to.
With hindsight I recognise now the maturity of that perspective, waiting to see what life had in store for me. So where has that patience gone? Why can I not surrender myself to the same sense of destiny now?
Maybe it is the professional training I have had. A life in education and academia inbreeds a sense of critical reflection that cannot be switched off when we wish. Or maybe it is the resulting collective experience of a life’s work. The knowledge that life might have mapped out your destiny for you, but you didn’t get through it without a great deal of effort and heartache.
A chance to pause, to take time out of the treadmill, may be something we all crave whilst we are going about our busy lives, but imposed isolation had perhaps imposed something else. My granny always said, “Be careful what you wish for.” I couldn’t be the only one who, set free from the daily routine was finding herself facing an existential crisis. I wondered how long it would last.
Respite came from a close friend. Whether for my benefit or hers – I suspect a mixture of both, she asked if I would read to her children over the popular visual telephone technology we have today. The simple reading of a chapter a day has developed into small research tasks, some comprehension and interpretation questing and written activities. I love it. Not only are her children bright, curious, and receptive, but out of nowhere have come back my former school teaching skills and my passion for children’s literature. An older child has been added to my list, and we are taking a trip through the Victorians and their criminal history. Another friend’s 8 year old who hates school and reading has joined my voluntary service and I am enjoying Roald Dahl again, and the challenge of bringing joy to a girl who cannot find it for herself in her story books.
In times like this, when we are forced to slow down, to really live instead of survive through our many displacement activities, the tendency to ruminate on our achievements and failures, to reflect back on the years that have passed in a blur, our own thoughts can be our biggest threat. Unearthing long unused skills, revisiting our younger passions can be just what we need not to displace our attentions but to refocus them. I ask you to try it. It has helped me enormously.