I’m reading a great deal about how much harder this lockdown is – and it feels strange reaching the anniversary of what many of us believed might be a brief period of hibernation. This anniversary means that the reality of a whole year of living through a pandemic hits hard. For me it still feels almost dreamlike, and although my digital footprint continually reminds me of all the confusion and fear of last year, it still feels otherworldly.
The fear has faded – and taken the adrenaline and fervour with it. Hackneyed use of warlike language has abated, and ever more sensational the headlines are continually created to turn our minds to other issues. It feels a little as though we are trying to hide from the anniversary, the horrific loss of life and the ongoing uncertainty.
This uncertainty that is the challenge. A string of unkeepable promises means the dates hung before us are no longer something to look forward to, but something we gingerly hope may happen, and gingerly hope won’t cause further damage. Shifting sands and changing tales all cause a sense of needing to double check oneself, and needing to keep hope at bay.
Yet normal life continues. I enjoy a nice dinner, clear up the latest mouse head the cat has brought in, watch for the daffodils opening and the first shoots of early spring – the phrase “this time last year” reverberates, and there is a whiff of nostalgia for that feeling of being “all in it together”. My anchors haven’t changed, but my need for them has increased immeasurably.
Writing during a pandemic is hard
Writing is hard this year. I feel my work has gone backwards a little, and I don’t seem able to concentrate or focus. Maybe tiredness, maybe M.E. maybe just the culmination of a singularly peculiar year – where my normal stimuli of live music, travel and time by the sea have been curtailed. I’ve work forthcoming in some great spaces, notably The Dawntreader, as well as a poem in Louise Mather’s celebration of cats Feline Utopia and my column in Spelt magazine, but the sense of losing myself in writing, that fizz of excitement when something is really coming together is absent. Perhaps just need to step back for a while – read more, listen to more, replenish my soul battery.
Thanks as ever for reading, stay safe, wear a mask, wash your hands,
First off,I’m writing this from bed, on my phone, so forgive any creative spelling or innovative phrasing.
How have the last few months been?
I’ve had a good run. Two, maybe three months where my routine (M/T/W rest -with at least one full bed day- Th/F/S/S dressed,do things) has worked. I’ve been able to find time to write both poetry and a daft story or two, amongst the stuff like housework, keeping the garden looking nice, cooking healthy food etc. I’ve even found time to do some paid work, and been asked to take on a permanent role with my copywriting agency (just 4 hours a week, but it feels amazing to be able to say “I’ve got a job”). Things have felt positive.
What do you mean by a crash?
Like it says really. My body and brain have stopped. I am breathless when I walk (just from bedroom to bathroom) , I have this weird fizzing through my limbs, I sleep almost constantly and wake feeling like I’ve been run over. At the moment I can still read,but I suspect that will fade later today.
How long will it last?
This is the other joy. I don’t know. Experience tells me that three or four days is usual, but there is always the chance that this could be the one that tips me, the one I don’t recover from.
It’s a scary thing, and every time I crash I curse myself for becoming cavalier over my illness. I get so fed up of having to be careful, having to ask for help that I just plough through; and here we are again. Bed, very little writing, very little work no life – just the neighbours chickens and the cat to entertain me.
What happens next?
I wait. I try to rest. I get up too soon then have to come back to bed. I get cross and frustrated and sad. I dream of having a bath, washing my hair. The worst bit is when I feel a bit better – my brains working, but my body won’t. That’s when I’m most likely to push too far.
This is one of the reasons Covid worries me so (there are a million for everyone, I know). If I catch it, and survive, my body is likely to react the same way as it did when I got the strain of tonsillitis that kicked all this off. Bearing in mind this seems to be a much feistier beast, it’s almost certain that I will end up very ill. It’s important to understand that I’m not “better” I’m just better at managing my health – any change to the balance has a major impact. Contracting C-19 could be devastating.
Writing about m.e. always makes me nervous – some people I considered friends were so unkind when I was first ill (they’re not any nicer now, they’re just not friends) but I think it’s important to talk about. As we see more people struggling to live with long-term symptoms of Covid-19, which bear striking similarities to m.e., an increased level of understanding is essential. And kind.
What can we do?
Send flοwers, kittens, cake and a one way ticket to Abel Tasman. I’m joking (I’m not), for me it’s a case of waiting it out – I’ve a warm safe home to do this in, a very fluffy cat for company and a partner with a great line in fish finger sandwiches, jacket potatoes and mushroomy pasta, so I’m sorted. The hardest thing is understanding how I’m feeling, and not pushing myself to do more. It astounds me that even after seven years, the protestant work ethic is so ingrained that I still believe that if I just work hard enough I’ll push through. My body has told me time and time again this is not true. I need to believe it. And to live in Abel Tasman.
Thanks for reading, it’s good to talk, even if only on a virtual basis.
I’ve found myself complaining a lot over the last few weeks. It’s not sitting well. Whilst I have bouts of gloom, I’m not generally a complainer. I’m a keeper of gratitude diaries, a giver of personal pep talks, a reluctant Pollyanna. Counting my blessings is second nature – I’m aware it’s not hard – I have food, warmth, safe home. Still these last few weeks I hear myself moaning about things that shouldn’t bother me – trees blocking a bit more light in my yard than I’d like (SAD begins to creep around at this time of year) envy of those with big skies and wide views, moaning about a misplaced sock or overlooked watering. I don’t like what I’m hearing.
Alongside this is an utter lack of creativity. Not a note, a scrap and scribble. I can barely read let alone write. I’m not sure if my brain is just overwhelmed by the awfulness in the news (although that’s usually fuel not foe) or I’m having to readjust to being in social situations after several months of solitude. It feels like the good creative part of my brain has twisted shut, and all that seeps out are petty grumbles.
Perhaps I just need a change of scene – like many people I’ve only left my home county once since the beginning of March. It’s not a terrible place to be by any means, but think the fact that many of my anchors, the things that make me feel like me, have been removed has left me a little rudderless. I miss the rush and collectivism of live music; I miss travelling to different places and seeing the similarities in human nature as well as the vast differences in culture. I miss the way the light falls differently, the new scents that characterise a country. I miss living.
Missing these things is a privilege in itself of course. It means I’ve travelled, been able to afford both money and time to enjoy music. It means I have a partner who genuinely loves the things I love. My normal doesn’t suit everyone, and the world’s normal certainly didn’t suit me. At the beginning of lockdown, I was of the mind that it was quite nice, having all these gigs streamed, and joining various zoom quizzes, being able to go to museums and galleries online – things that M.E. has curtailed in real life. Six months in I’ve realised that these things are only a sticking plaster. I need that feeling of being with people I feel myself with, that feeling of community, of a common love and it doesn’t happen through a screen. I know that the future is bound to be different, but I’m scared we are going to lose the things that make being human a rich and vivid thing. The curated perfection of a screen is no match for a flawed, emotionally charged performance, or that moment when I stand back from a painting in a gallery and feel my synapses fizz with excitement. It’s no match for sitting around laughing a daft tv program with friends you’ve not seen for years, sitting down to share food you’ve cooked together, no match for the excitement of walking into a dingy nightclub an hearing the music you love, knowing it’s going to be a good night.
I feel curiously better now I’ve written this – I’m not a complainer. I’m just struggling a bit with being in one place for six months and so everything from overgrown trees to misplaced socks is starting to feel too much too Pollyanna my way out of. Reading back, this seems like a normal enough response to a six month lockdown.
Hopefully creativity will spring back soon. Until then, wear your mask, wash your hands, read widely and critically.
I’m nearing the end of my Telling your Story course. I’ve produced a sheaf of poems from over the last month, a couple that I really love, some that need a bit more work and some that are best left as they are – an simple expression of emotion. I’ll be sending several out for submission, but I thought I’d share this one with you – it’s very much of the moment. The prompt was to think about what we’d pack away as this first period of the pandemic seems to be reaching an end.
My coronavirus case has a cherry pink lining
I choose my favourite vanity case
vintage cream with cherry pink lining,
pounced on in that Liverpool charity shop.
I lay down casual chats with my neighbours.
I lay down having you here.
Eating, together, at one on the dot.
There’s a corner for beloved musicians,
beaming beautiful covers of beautiful songs
live from their room to mine. A corner for listening parties,
a corner for shared lives online.
I have to leave space for the wipes, for hand gel, for grocery fear,
Space for missed hugs and markers,
time ebbed away in untouchable blur.
I leave space for those lives irretrievably changed,
Self imposed isolation for almost a month (I’m not on an official list but getting a simple cold puts me out of action for weeks, so I’m taking no chances for fear of relapse). My brain has thought of nothing beyond how terrified I am for everyone and being utterly obsessed with making sure everyone I know has enough food. I seem to be morphing into some kind of domestic fanatic, making bread, baking cakes, growing veg and generally about finding one hundred and one recipes to use up beetroot. I’ve been too scared and angry to write anything that isn’t work related (and therefore essential to keep eating) and that’s been fine….
…except I’ve missed it. I’ve missed going into another world, I’ve missed sitting seeing if I can taste the right word to use, I’ve missed hunkering down into language to let all those glimmers of joy quietly glow. I abandoned my Poetry School course (thankfully I have a credit) and wasn’t sure how I’d get on with my two new ventures this month. One is a free weeklong short story course, designed by Tania Hershman, courtesy of Arvon, and my other is another poetry course from Wendy Pratt. I missed out on funding to go to Arvon this summer, so I was thrilled to have the chance to benefit from Tania’s unique take on the world and how she incorporates this into teaching and as you’ll remember from my February blogs, there is something about Wendy’s approach that gives me a freedom – and a feeling of being good enough.
I started both today, after doing a super long piece of work about safety in the construction industry (I know). My brain is sleepy, and my thoughts are a little swimmy, but I seem to be able to connect to that part of me that can escape. The first exercise in the short story program was to gather phrases from three poetry books, two instruction manuals and a recipe book, then build a story,and the prompt form Wendy was to recall and respond to being the butt of a joke ( loads of material for this one).
I’ve written a story about eating squirrels and drafted a poem about styling out a loss of control, both of which seem ideal for the current situation.
I doubt I’ll write King Lear, discover great scientific theories, or even get around to polishing up all the pieces I want to submit, but I finally feel a little more like me again, and that is a wonderful thing.
I was very poorly at the start of the year, which meant I spent most of January trapped at home, and a couple of weeks in one room. My biggest mistake was forgetting to pay attention to my mental state. This kind of isolation is something we’re all likely to face over the coming weeks, with added elements of fear and uncertainty to make things just that little bit tougher. Therapy last year has made me mentally more resilient, and I’ve been able to identify what I’d do differently next time so I thought it might be useful to people in the same situation. I didn’t think I’d have chance to test it quite so soon….
Create a routine
This is the most important thing, not so much if I’m really ill and all my body wants is to sleep, but for the times when I feel a bit better but can’t do loads. Over the last seven years I’ve learnt that having a rhythm to my life keeps me balanced. In an ideal week I get up as I would if I was going out to work and keep set hours. I can’t “work” for a full eight hour day, but I can do a couple of hours of something (writing/reading/gardening etc.) over the course of the day. I have a lunch break, and I “finish” in the evening. I try to keep my weekends as some semblance of a weekend, so that’s the time for lolling on the sofa, or eating a fancy dinner. A routine helps me feel in control and keep a leash on the panic, so I can cope when things don’t go to plan
Treat yourself well
The worst thing about being so poorly is not being able to wash and be clean. Other than my scheduled rest days or if I’m crashed, I always try to get up, shower and dress. I have work clothes (thankfully not orange owl printed crimplene anymore), and I have nicer clothes that I wear at the weekend. I’m not swishing about the house in a ballgown (often) but I’ll put on some make-up and perfume if I fancy. It all makes me feel a bit more like me, if that makes sense.
Do different things
If there’s anything good about all this, it’s the raft of online resources that are popping up. There’s ways to visit a gallery, take a trip to the zoo and loads of online courses available for free. At the moment social distancing feels like a great time to do nothing but watch box sets and eat pizza. This is a wonderful activity, but it gets dull really quickly, and dullness leads to boredom which leads to apathy and suddenly getting off the sofa is a lot harder than it should be.
Talk to people
This is a biggie, and the single most important change I’ve made in the last year. Some weeks I see my partner for about ten minutes a day – his having to work late and me being ill in bed makes communication hard, and it often gets to the point where the sound of my own voice is alien to me – like listening to a recording. This makes me nervous to speak, which feeds social anxiety and becomes self-perpetuating. I hated talking on the phone and relied almost exclusively on text and social media to talk to anyone outside my own four walls. Since about September, I’ve been having regular phones calls with my dear friend, and this has made so much difference. We schedule a time, so I don’t have the panic that usually accompanies an unexpected call and spend about half an hour just chatting about everything and nothing. I’d really recommend doing this, even if you’re not usually a phone person, there’s something about the twists and turns of conversation that can’t be replicated by typing.
Being well enough to cook is tricky, and it’s easy to slip into eating nothing but toast. I’m not going to repeat all the stuff about fruit and veg (but yes, eat fruit and veg), especially when these things are hard to get. I tend to keep “easy” foods in for ill times, so for me that’s ready to eat rice, chickpeas, tuna and eggs. It’s all stuff that takes minutes to open and eat as gives me good quality nutrition. I also fail completely and trough the packet of biscuits I was saving for if I have visitors, which feels wonderful for about six minutes and six minutes only.
All those Italians on their balconies have the right idea. Even if I’m not up to walking, I try to feel fresh air on my face as often as I can, even if that’s as tiny as putting my head out of the window. Being outside takes me out of my own head somehow too. I’m lucky enough to have a small garden, and even a short time sitting watching a bunch of ants doing ant things or listening to blackbirds showing off about who’s the best blackbird ever, helps me put distance between myself and my thoughts.
Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it. Reality is that our culture of repressing emotions, the much adored stiff upper lip, is bad for my mental health. Squashing stuff down gives it power, and sometimes that power becomes too much to cope with – cue tough times for my mind. It’s hard to ask for help, but harder to live without it. If you’ve got a friend you can trust to listen, then get in touch. At the end of January, I sent dear friend a scared email saying how I was feeling, and the impact of hearing someone say “it’s ok, I’ll help” was huge. It’s taken me years to get to this point, but I’m glad I have.
I know not everyone has their own “dear friend”, but there is still help – Samaritans and Mind are invaluable resources with trained listeners who will help you work out what you need.
That’s it for now, I hope it’s helpful. I’m hoping my brain will have stepped out of panic mode soon so I can write creatively again. If you’re lucky (?!) my next post might be called Odes to Corona.
Stay safe, wash your hands and if you can, please stay home xxx