Reflections from a home front: 1
On Wednesday, the husband and I staged an early morning raid on Boots, returning triumphant with one pack of paracetemol and one tiny bottle of hand sanitiser apiece. The gleaming green contraband miniatures, furtively produced from below the counter on whispered request, now have pride of place on the kitchen dresser. An odd start to another of these increasingly odd days.
Just as unimaginable a few weeks ago would have been the deserted streets, now cleared of every last student, tourist and tout. The river, too, is as clean as the Venice canals, with only the moorhens to stir the water. Older residents are recalling the Cambridge of their youth; for younger ones it’s a complete novelty. But the silent cityscape, like all the others flashed on our screens in last night’s news, feels like the most insistent reminder (and somehow they’re needed, so unreal seems the situation) of what is actually happening in the world. Especially poignant, as I walked through the streets in a state of heightened awareness, were the serried ranks of laminated posters flapping about on all the church railings.
Here is the poem that began in my head as I cycled home, listening to the birdsong on the fen. You can hear me read it by clicking on the play button.
Round town the railing posters still remain
Like shiny prayer flags flapping in the breeze,
Recitals clean forgotten, plays unstaged,
Classes culled, unfinished symphonies.
The cherry’s sparrows chatter unaware,
The darkling thrush still trembles out his soul.
Sing for us now, you creatures of the air,
Until the day our songs can rise once more.
This post is by way of introduction to what I’m planning as a continuing series of reflections. If no one reads them, that’s fine. It will still help me to record, to process and perhaps to work out some ways of being in these troubled times. As many have now observed, we are living through what history will almost certainly record as a pivotal, globe-changing event on the scale of a world war. Actually, it is a world war. And if nothing else, it may be interesting in a few months’ or years’ time to recall thoughts and feelings as events unfolded. On Sunday, at St Mark’s Church in Newnham, I gave a sermon that, it now turns out, was the last until who knows when. The text for that week was the woman at the well, and I was planning a reflection on the theme of water. But during my early morning walk on Friday it came to me that I could not go on as if nothing had happened; nor would a passing reference do. And all at once a very different angle presented itself. It finished like this:
I wonder if we can see this time of being drawn aside as a time with its own opportunity. In this suspension, this liminal space, can we be receptive perhaps, to different kinds of encounter – with each other and with God? When all around is closing down, can we be open? Clearly our human encounters with each other may have to take on a different aspect, but perhaps we can be creative about making sure we maintain contact with people. About creating new kinds of contact. Under constraints, creativity can blossom, living water can flow. Again, I do not want to make light of the challenges or offer platitudes, but I think the real challenge to us who try to follow Christ, is about turning our isolations to solitude, our drawing aside to drawing in, and our closed doors to open encounter.
By no means am I intending this to publicise my pontifications from the pulpit here, but mention it only because that I want my actions, for once, to line up with my convictions (I’m ashamed to say they don’t nearly as much as I would wish) and to heed my own advice about letting the constraints be a catalyst. As well as offering what practical help I can, I’d like to creatively explore possibilities for enriching life at this time.
A friend who is an academic and a theologian is sending Self-Isolation Bulletins as means of both reflecting and keeping up communication. In the first, we learned that rather than stashing loo rolls, he has been stockpiling books from the University Library, and also that Isaac Newton developed calculus and the theory of gravity whilst self-isolating from bubonic plague. This is my attempt at something similar. (The bulletin, not the mathematical theory.)