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.