More than I expected

It felt awkward – just clapping our hands outside our front doors as a sign of support for NHS staff on the frontline of their fight against CV. And yet, reluctantly I stood there in the dark hoping I wouldn’t be the first, or the only one. Armed with my instruments: a saucepan and wooden spoon.

A few doors down a friend working in the local hospital told us that this week she had to advise her most vulnerable patients on the oncology ward that they should stop their chemotherapy, as catching CV with their reduced immunity would almost certainly be fatal. She never imagined having to have such difficult conversations and found herself crying inconsolably when she returned from her shift. I can only imagine having to say that … thinking about the words I would use.

I really hope she heard us.

So actually it was not hard to stand at my front door and clap, and as the applause swept up our street I bashed the tins harder and got weepier for the knowledge of the searing, emotional but understated work our National Health Service warriors do each day.

We are British. On the phone I’d seen clips of men playing tennis across Italian balconies and Spanish police serenading families stuck indoors.  But we Brits don’t do emotional, extravagant outbursts so I expected the 8pm moment would be embarrassing. I knew it would be weird. But somehow, it was moving. More than that. Beautiful.

And as the echoes of the applause and the tin pots melted into the cool March night, neighbours trickled onto the road. We chatted tentatively about our families, how odd it all is, people pulling together, how to source toilet rolls.

I listened intently to the man opposite as he spoke about the crisis. The effectiveness of lockdown, the state of our leaders and how somehow we will all look back on this and be changed. Earlier this year he had found my lost cat who was at death’s door, while we were away on holiday. How had I lived opposite him for years and never really talked? This man loved my cat, had lots of answers and I hardly knew him.

We are desperate for connection, for community and above all for contact. This lockdown makes it feel like we are losing our schools and churches, our sports teams and choirs, even our favourite pubs, all those cornerstones of British community life. And the irony is that in our current state of isolation we need community more than ever before. A week into lockdown and I’m missing basic physical interaction with people down the road I like. A handshake, an arm on the shoulder, a bit of banter, a beer with someone.

The ‘Clap for our Carers’ initiative was dreamt up by Annemarie Plas, a Dutch yoga teacher whose message on Instagram was shared across social media. She was inspired by a moment of applause in the Netherlands two weeks ago where she saw its uplifting effect on people.

Where we are just now feels like a pause. Pauses can draw attention to things that otherwise would go unnoticed. I’ve been reading Robert Poynton’s ‘Do/Pause’. He reminds us that playwrights (like composers) indicate where the actor should pause in the text, because they know the pause will lead the audience and change the meaning. Yesterday, I tried to pause more than usual and I noticed 2 things that with less time I would have missed:

  • A clean blue sky without a single plane trail (I had to catch myself I was so surprised)
  • How hard my eldest son and I laughed as we made toad-in-the-hole for dinner – we had time for cooking together, instead of it being a chore before getting back to work

The enforced disconnection we are experiencing means it’s not business as usual, and our communities are being wonderfully resourceful. Thousands throwing themselves at making each community work, volunteering to deliver food and medicines for the NHS, café-owners selling half price to key workers, teachers making free school meals a reality for families, volunteers running foodbanks, neighbours phoning people down the road to check in and dropping food off. And the exploding of virtual communities encouraging us and keeping us in touch. It is inspiring and tear-jerking in equal measure.

And we are not really losing them of course – those soul-spaces of our society. Schools are working incredibly hard to support pupils at home. Churches run virtual services and have set up practical and prayer support for the elderly and people self-isolating. And of course the time to celebrate sports teams and that beer will come.

So maybe something’s happening.

Poynton remembered as a child merging his collection of lego with that of a friend to undertake bigger construction projects. “I remember thinking it impressive that each brick – his and mine – slotted reliably with every other brick. The studs in the top lock with the tubes beneath without fail.”

We are like lego bricks waiting right now. Physically we have to isolate, but in our minds we can either lie separate on the floor (to be trodden on by a sleepy parent) or join together to build something different in this space. A construction project that we could not have dreamt about before we were made to pause.

Sometimes tiny gestures surprise us and touch our hearts. My family will be putting a candle in our window on Sunday, and I for one will feel a little less alone and a little more open as I look out the window at my own community.

It has all been much more than I expected.



The Village of Albion

Once there was a dreaded plague which came to the Kingdom of Albion from the desert across the sea.

The first signs were coughing. Next came sickness, and then some of the elders began to die. And the villagers were very sad because the people of Albion were a loving people who cared deeply about their elders.

Some of the prophet leaders said that people should not meet together in the village taverns or bakeries or even in the synagogues or churches. But other prophets disagreed and said that people should still hold their child’s hand and take them to sit under the tree for the afternoon story with the teacher, and they should visit the elders in the gardens by the river where they grew flowers that were sold at market to help pay the taxes for the Pharaoh.

And because the prophets disagreed, the lawyers got involved, and everybody argued.

And so the people in the village became angry. Angry at the prophets who gave confusing prophecies and who did not speak with one voice. Angry at the Pharaoh collecting his taxes. Angry at the teacher who carried on reading under the tree as if nothing was happening. And angry at themselves because they were afraid and did not know the right thing to do.

Some people were afraid that they would catch the plague so they started to avoid each other. Some were afraid that the Pharaoh would punish them if they were not working in the garden picking flowers to pay the taxes, and so they went to work. But they eyed each other suspiciously in the gardens and made sure to leave two rows between them and the next picker.

And so the whispering desert wind blew across the land, silently at first and then stronger and stronger until people were afraid that it would blow the plague right into their own houses. So they shut the doors very tight and peered through the cracks to see what was happening outside.

And then the prophets told all the people who were coughing that they would be locked up in their homes. And so the coughers were seen no more. And slowly, the daily visits to the bakery ended, no one visited the old lady at the top of the street and the flowers in the gardens by the river went unpicked.

Young men held their hands by their sides awkwardly at the tavern. The elders in the coffee house bobbed side to side instead of double-kissing, and the clapping games of the girls grew silent.

And then the Pharaoh caught the coughing sickness.

And the villagers held on tight to their baskets of bread, their buckets of milk, the fish from the river and their handful of coins from the market that week. They locked themselves away and hardly ever came out.

And then the prophets said that the children were not allowed to visit their grandmothers and grandfathers. The elders were lonely, and the little children were sad because they didn’t understand and they felt poisonous. And the elders were sad because they yearned to be part of things, instead of shut away. And very soon it wasn’t just the coughers who didn’t come out. It was everyone.

And so the sounds of the village became soft and even the lowing of the cows was muffled and sleepy. The clamour of children and the babble of the elders and the happy eruption of the night music from the tavern all disappeared and so the village became silent.

It was like the world had paused, waiting to see what would happen next. It was as though the village had died.

And all this time the teacher had been sitting underneath in the shade of the tree reading a story to herself. And slowly, because they were tired of waiting, and because their parents were exhausted, some of the smallest children crept out of the houses and nervously sat under the tree to listen.

At first there were only two or three but, because the teacher read so well and felt the words so deeply and wanted to share them, soon there were hundreds of children sitting in the shade underneath the gently spreading branches of the tree.

And then one morning, one of the houses of the coughers opened up and a small girl with a purple dress stepped outside. Curtains and drapes and blinds blinked and the villagers gasped as they peered outside and watched her walk the whole length up the hill. At times she skipped, so happy was she to be in the fresh air again.

She carried something gently, and for the whole time she skipped up the hill there was not a single cough.

At the top of the street she turned, and knocked on the dusty door of the old lady. There was a long pause before the door was opened.

“You know you’re not allowed to come here,” said the lady

“But I have stopped coughing,” the little girl replied.

“No, I mean you are not allowed to come here. I am old and have to be left alone because I am weak.”

The little girl did not reply. She reached behind her back, and brought out a bunch of purple tulips. She stood on tiptoes and held them high. The old lady gazed. And she smiled. And then she stepped to one side and the little girl went inside