Reflections from a home front: 14
It feels like it’s been a tough week. Nearly everyone I spoke to seemed to have run into a slough of despond.
Locking down was relatively easy: clear the desk, take your belongings, get out, quick as you can. Returning to the world, a very different world, looks much, much harder. And it’s still a return in the teeth of lockdown. And now we’re really feeling the edge of those teeth. Even if we began with can-do confidence, quarantine fatigue is quite evidently setting in. As is language fatigue, with words like unprecedented on overtime. In the words of Chekov, “Any idiot can face a crisis – it’s day to day living that wears you out.”
Right, I thought. This week, I’ll write something that’s simply fun and diverting. I even adopted a galloping dactyllic metre in an effort to keep things upbeat.  But poems have a way of writing themselves, and, well, things didn’t go quite according to plan. But it’s not without its lighter moments. As ever, you can click to hear it or scroll down to read.
Work was never this homely.
And home never worked to such cost.
With virtual school
And summits on Zoom
And sing-ins and workouts
All jammed in one room,
Our boundaries were never so crossed.
Our larders were never so laden.
(Shelves in Waitrose were never so bare.)
Our loaves are so various!
(Though our sourdough’s precarious.)
It’s like the Great Bake Off
Though not so vicarious –
We’ve all got a cake to compère.
Our street was never this silent.
The silence was never so loud.
The larks and the warblers
Are thronging the borders,
The lawn has been trashed
By some feathered marauders,
And ospreys patrol round the pond.
Our dreams were never so real.
Reality never this tough.
Life leaves us reeling
And there’s no concealing
That words can’t convey
The freight of our feeling
And never is never enough.
The screen stares back. It is empty.
The speakers are mute. Not a sound.
But a note or a glide
Like a cell deep inside,
Like the song of the outermost
Star as it died,
Will ever forever surround
Till ever in never is found.
1. Dactyllic metre – dum-di-di, dum-di-di. In contrast to the more usual, iambic – di-dum, di-dum.
Reflections from a home front: 13
These Strange Times produce a strange experience of time. Certainly, it appears warped. For many, pre-lockdown life seems like a lifetime ago – yet lockdown weeks seem to be flying by.
At one level, this is accounted for by what we know about the ways the brain registers time. It’s complex but, essentially, the more we are absorbed in what we are doing, the more new information we are processing, the more quickly time seems to pass – at the time. Paradoxically, when we look back on a busy period, especially if we have been deeply engaged intellectually or emotionally, and especially if there have been several distinct events of changes of activity, then it occupies more space in our memory – and the brain perceives it as having taken more time. Hence a short holiday with lots of new, stimulating activity flies by but stretches forever in recollection. And the converse is true.
Clearly everyone’s experience of These Strange Times varies, but there are common themes. There are also some conflicting conditions in relation to time perception, which perhaps increases the perception of strangeness. So a lockdown sabbatical in which one day is indistinguishable from another can feel like a long time when we’re in it, yet will collapse in retrospect. Equally, the fact it’s a series of novel experiences and requires a lot of emotional processing means that time doesn’t drag, yet early March will seem like another country. That’s the nub of it, you can read more here.
For some of us, I think, the experience may be further complicated by a different relationship with measured time. I, for instance, have never got on well with watches and now my wrist ticks only to the pulse of my vein. Our calendar, meanwhile, languishes on the kitchen wall, displaying the month that never was with events we cannot bear to cross off – even as the increasingly blank rows seem to gesture to a life of possibility.
At the same time, a widespread reconnection with the natural world may be drawing us into a wholly different kind of time, attuning us to not only to the turn of the earth but also what has been ticking away underneath all along. As Alan Burdick observes in Why Time Flies:
“What science has begun to reveal is how time manifests itself in living biology, how it is interpreted … by cells and subcellular machinery … it seeps upward into the neurobiology, psychology and consciousness of our species.”
Ancient cultures understood time not as a measured commodity, but as a function of nature. It was not so much linear as cyclical, elastic, and with no sense of an ultimate ending. These ideas are obliquely reflected in the Greek distinction between chronos and kairos, both of which we casually translate as time. Perhaps the closest we can get to remembrance of ‘mythic’, pre-chronologically literate time is the kind of time we experience as young children. Or, as Winnie the Pooh begins: “Once upon a time, a very long time ago, about last Friday.”
Of course, things are different now. We understand how time really works. Except we don’t. “If scientists agree on anything” says Burdick, “it’s that nobody knows enough about time, and this lack of knowledge is surprising, given how pervasive time is in our lives.”
What does the word ‘time’ conjure for you? Perhaps an image of a clock or watch. Of course, we need clocks. We are social creatures and if we are to live and work together, we need some agreement on matters of when and how long. So we live by our chronometers, constantly, consistently checking our lives. But time is also in us. And it is us – “seeping up” from every living cell where the inbuilt clock ticks to both its own internal rhythms and the cycles of night and light.
Here is my attempt to capture some of this in a poem. “Will everyone know about Plato and Paley?” asked the Wandering Albatross. “P’raps not,” I said, “but hopefully that won’t matter.” To hear the poem, click the play button.
The calendar on the kitchen wall.
Like a flickering shadow in the cave,
Spellbinds these perfect squares, pale days –
Now May’s only a notion
In some other dimension.
Beached, the bedside watch
With blanket of dust, ticks off
Each second – each minute
Just one more circuit.
Scratching the surface.
Out of the race, we fall
Into step with trees. We feel
The grain and ringing cells
And find time isn’t told
But grows and folds.
Reflections from a home front: 12
Week seven of lockdown, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. It’s faint and, as is the way with dark tunnels, distance becomes hard to judge. But here in England the message is suddenly no longer ‘Stay at Home’. One assumes that, apart from its useful same-but-different vibe, the government has adopted the call to ‘Stay Alert’ rather than ‘Be Alert’ to avoid inviting the obvious response, ‘Because Britain needs Lerts’. 
It’s been perceived as a messy message – though it’s quite hard to imagine any strapline capable of capturing a message appropriate to the moment. Getting out fast and locking the door behind was a relatively simple emergency procedure; it was clear what we had to do. What lies in front is vastly complicated and uncertain for so many reasons. The world will be different. It’s hard to imagine how different, or what that will feel like. But picking up where we left off is obviously not going to be an option.
Back in March, Rowan Williams, appearing on Newsnight, was asked: ‘Is it more important to bounce back, or is it more important to be changed?’ His reply:
‘That’s a very interesting question because we’re almost too used to hearing people say, well things will never be the same again – after nine eleven and the financial crisis of 2008. But mysteriously, we didn’t seem to learn a great deal from either of those things. So naturally I hope it’s not just a question of bouncing back. I think the real question is, what does it really mean to live in a safe society – a society where vulnerable people are secure. … It’s genuinely a shared challenge. Do I understand that my wellbeing is completely bound up with the wellbeing of all my fellow human beings? It’s a big ask to get that imaginative question through, but there it is.’
It is a big ask. But, as I wrote a few posts back, the gift of this time is that it has invited us – pushed us, even – to notice the priorities we’ve been slowly nudged into, the programme we’ve inadvertently constructed, and what our human being has come to consist in. The world will be different. But we will be different.
As with reverse culture shock, we may not completely appreciate how different until re-entry. I remember spending a week on a small boat, sailing round the coast of Britain in what turned out to be the coldest, wettest week of that particular summer. I am not a sailor, and so my role was pretty limited. Aside from observing the strict routines of life on board, it mainly involved huddling on the deck and trying to keep warm whilst watching the waves and the sky and the land dipping in and out of view on the horizon. There were a few magical moments: hearing the cries of the wildfowl while moored on a Suffolk estuary at dusk, a visiting porpoise, the thrill of being on the tiller and holding course through an extremely rough patch. But I spent a lot of time wondering how else I might have spent a week’s precious holiday. It was only on my return that the full effect was revealed. There was, of course, the appreciation of simple things (space to wash and cook, enough water, warmth) but more wondrously my soul had been stilled and I experienced a rare lucidity of thought and vision. How I wanted to hold on to it! Despite my best efforts the sensation ebbed away. Transformation of habit and of being takes longer than a week. But there was a legacy of thought and perspective that has influenced subsequent choices.
We are not the people we were when we locked the door, although we may not realise it immediately. Transformation doesn’t always happen straight away. It happens after you thought it should. It happens behind the scenes. It happens when you’re looking the other way. Like the ugly duckling, you might not appreciate what’s really happened until you return to the world of the river bank.
As the world we knew fell away, Wordsworth’s famous line, ‘The world is too much with us’ kept springing to my mind …
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
… and formed a springboard for today’s poem, another sonnet. Again, if you'd like to hear it, click the play button.
Our world was too much with us, that we’d known,
Imposed and stolen, straining at the seams.
One unseen strain threw every tower down.
In deep retreat, we locked away our dreams.
Straight into the cleared and quiet places
Determined shoots and heaven-bent tendrils crept.
Into every breach and every province
The feet of peaceful armies quickly stepped.
Now swithering on the threshold, as in prayer,
Observing how the path has overgrown,
We find white feathers striking through grey.
We flex our wings and modulate our song.
How not to trample, but to sanctify
The tender surface. How to learn to fly?
 When I asked the Wandering Albatross to do his usual and much appreciated proof-read just now, he pointed out a piece in today’s press mentioning that Twitter is now awash with this particular joke. I honestly hadn't seen it. Dash.
Reflections from a home front: 11
A rather different sort of post today. Since the very beginning of this series, I’ve been meaning to put audio versions of these poems alongside the text. Believing as I do that poetry is a multimodal art form whose primary medium is sound and whose instrument is the voice, I didn’t really want to leave my words stranded on the screen. So this is partly to say that, rather belatedly, I’ve inserted a recorded reading for every poem, and will henceforth.
Last time’s ‘Zoom Meeting’, in particular, was fun to do and comes to life in performance. That said, the poem seemed to strike a chord, quite unassisted by my vocal efforts. I usually get one or two messages or emails in response to these posts, which is lovely, but loads of people got in touch to share their recognition and requesting to share. (Always fine; these posts are completely public.) So if you enjoyed reading it, you can now hear it.
The next reflection and poem are mulching and will be along later in the week. But the thought of venturing out without some verse now feels a bit odd, like going out not properly dressed. So to cover up, here’s bit of unpretentious, non-corona-related fluff from the back of the archive. The justification, if required (though I’m not sure a rubber duck ever needs justification), is the theme of unanticipated benefits. You can hear me read the poem by clicking the play button.
The Great Duck Diaspora
In 1992, a container ship in the North Pacific Ocean was hit by a storm. Twelve 40-foot containers were washed overboard, and their contents – 28,000 bath toys – released to the waves.
In nineteen hundred and ninety two
A stately ship left China’s shore,
On deck, containers, row on row –
The precious cargo that she bore.
Early in the voyage, a storm
Sent raging waves across her beam,
Sweeping cargo overboard,
Splitting cases, seam from seam.
Thirty thousand rubber ducks
Were flung into the ocean’s path.
To freedom, and an early bath.
Cast upon the circling tides,
The little ducks began to swim,
To circumnavigate inside
Three years, the whole Pacific Rim.
North along the Bering Strait
One brave flotilla boldy forged.
Now in blocks of ice they wait
To press along their Arctic course.
For fifteen years, Anatid sightings
Came from distant lands and seas,
From Malibu to Massachusetts,
Hawaii to the Hebrides.
And from these trails, the scientists
Could trace where ocean currents went.
(Which helps with the environment.)
Oh lucky, ducky accident!
And so, the duck that shares your bath –
A cheery, yellow floating smile –
While dabbling in domestic bliss
Dreams of cousins in the wild.
“Ok, folks, let’s make a start.”
Sue’s on the moon. That looks quite smart.
“Oh wait, are we expecting Rex?”
“I’ll reinvite. Can someone text?”
Mike’s speaking but his sound’s gone dead.
Is Sally in her garden shed?
He’s unaware. The chorus swells,
“Unmute! Unmute!” We wave and yell.
He forges on as through a fog.
Is that hairy thing a dog?
“Test your mic, Mike! Test your sound!”
“heLLO?” Relief and thumbs all round.
The host continues, “As you know …”
Then seizes in an awkward pose.
Crikey, look at Nigel’s hair.
He sputters in and out. “Oh dear…”
“The internet’s quite dodgy here …
I’ll **~~**~~ laptop **~~** upstairs.”
Rooms swirl round. I feel quite sick.
“OK, let’s see if that’ll stick.”
Now Jen and Jules begin together.
Zoom’s confused. It’s not that clever.
So who was in that empty room?
Both retreat. Then both resume.
They urge each other, “Be my guest.”
Jules concedes but then forgets
Whatever point she meant to make.
Those curtains were a bad mistake.
“Sorry folks, I’ve got to leave.
Another meeting booked for three.”
Steve is having forty winks.
He’s gone. Another broken link.
“Thanks everyone. It’s been productive!”
Certainly, it was instructive.
“See you next time.” Meeting’s End.
So good we’re able to attend.
To hear the poem, click the play button.
Reflections from a home front: 10
I thought I’d start with the poem for a change. In a week where I’ve felt less buoyant than previously, I have indulged in playing with some lighter stuff.  If you’d like a more thoughtful poetic take, try Malcolm Guite’s second Quarantine Quatrain.
Zoom for two. Plus incidental Bookcase Credibility grab.
My own experience of Zoom – which includes work meetings, study groups, family chats and virtual drinks with the choir – is that of a mixed blessing. The moment when a familiar face enters the screen, there’s a little hit of pleasureable recognition. A few more people arrive, and – hurrah! – we’re together again. In spite of everything, here we all are! But here is an illusion, and it’s a less than convincing one in so many ways.
Although one-to-one works, after a fashion, group gatherings leave me feeling unsettled. I feel self-conscious and find it hard to know when to speak. And when I eventually do, it doesn’t feel as if I’m talking to anyone. This renders me less fluent and feeling a bit stranded. I know it’s suggested you turn your camera off, but seeing the group without me in it feels as if I’ve absented myself from proceedings, which makes me feel even more on the edge than I already do.
There’s some consolation in knowing not all of this just me. For all of us, video calls eliminate so many of the subtle but vital cues to successful human communication that we pick up brilliantly, intuitively and mostly subconsciously. And this problem is exacerbated by multiscreen screens. It’s a significant challenge to the poor old brain; no wonder we’re left with Zoom Fatigue. (Now officially a thing.) For analysis of Zoom’s fascinating but complicated effects (for certain people it’s actually a better way to communicate) see these articles from National Geographic and the BBC.
Even more unsettling than the neurological challenge is the emotional charge. When forgathering is forbidden, these facsimiles simply remind us of the living, breathing presence we do not have. It reminds me of a time when my daughter was about seven and I went away on a work trip to America. She completely refused to speak to me on the phone, knowing instinctively that it would be more than she could bear.
Look, don’t touch. Hear, don’t hug. The experience is shot through with ambivalence.
Well, it’s better than the alternative nothing. That’s the obvious argument. But if there’s one thing that the current situation has brought home is that for many things, there isn’t always straightforward way to determine what’s better or best, to put the short term alongside the long term, to put one kind of benefit above another.
It seems likely that Zoom’s face replacement service will have a place in the emerging post-lockdown world. But if nothing else, we will surely value the simple act of being together, real people in real places – something so ordinary but so vital to human flourishing.
The Wandering Albatross said I should note that this more the result of pollen fever than cabin fever.
 An absolutely brilliant thing on Twitter. Suspect mine would not come out well, though.
Reflections from a home front: 9
Five weeks in and we’re getting restless. After the initial adjustment phase, where we worked out how to live our newly constrained lives, thoughts are now turning to the even more difficult question of what happens next.
As well as thinking about very practical problems of how to lift restrictions to avoid a Coronaresurgence, we are facing the fact that the world we return to will not be the world we just left. We may not have been asleep for 100 years, but so fast and far-reaching will be the changes that it could certainly feel like coming out of hibernation. We might well feel apprehensive. What will we find outside when we open the door?
But if the material and economic world has been turned upside down, so have we.
Collectively, we have been confronted with some uncomfortable realities: the illusory nature of our control, our vulnerability, the overwhelming complexity that underlies some moral choices, our sheer mortality. For us as individuals, acutely aware of all this, confinement has given us the opportunity to reflect on the status quo, and on ourselves.
People emerging from serious and perhaps life-threatening illness often seem to do so with a very different outlook on the world. Some also acquire a new zest for living and a strong sense of purpose that provides the necessary impetus to make lasting changes. It’s a paradoxical experience: you wouldn’t want to go through it again or indeed wish it on anyone else, and yet you wouldn’t want to go back to being the person you were before. Under the current threat to life and restriction of activity, we seem to be experiencing something similar: increased appreciation of small pleasures, expanded compassion, greater clarity about what really matters, shifted priorities. It may feel as if we have been restored to something lost, returned to sanity, reclothed in our rightful mind. We couldn’t see the wood for the trees; now we see the whole of the wood, and each individual tree.
It’s a completely transformed perspective of a sort that we can’t bring about through our own intellectual effort, however much we might desire it. It can only be received as a gift.
There are immense questions about how we deal practically with the new world that we eventually shuffle into. But the still bigger question is not about how we regain what we have lost, but how we can hold on to the gift we have been given. How do we avoid wasting this once-in-several lifetimes chastening of an entire population? How do we hold our course? How do we build according to what we have learned?
Today’s poem began with that phrase, “can’t see the wood for the trees”, which popped into my mind during a walk and seemed worth a poetic exploration. “Oh, you’re in a Wordsworthian phase,” said the Wandering Albatross. That wasn’t intentional; it’s just how it came out. You can hear how it came out by clicking the play button.
Couldn’t see the wood for the trees
In what was left of evening light,
Across the empty fields we glimpsed
A grubby sprawl – the tangled twigs
A hundred trunks and branching limbs
And things that flapped and things that crawled,
And no way through. We did not see
The wood, nor any tree.
But in the morning air, we saw
A copse that traced the chalky slope –
Each tree in rightful place: the beech
And hazel rooting for the ash,
The grazing snail and spying thrush,
And ancient paths that call our feet
Through woods and trees.
That fading day, we knew our days
Were numbered and no longer
Where we lived – the constant flicking
Seconds on display, and ticking
Boxes, and the things that ping
And measure up. We could not tell
The time, nor break the spell.
But in this strange dawn light, we sense
A different stroke – a time to weep
A time to plant, a time to keep
The turns of earth and tidal ebb
And spirit’s flow. It’s time to feel
The pulse that urges us to dwell
Under this time’s spell.
Reflections from a home front: 8
Our reaction to the lockdown, as briefly observed last time, might depend on whether we are meerkats or sloths at heart. For one effect of living in this unfamiliar and uncertain territory is the way it tends to bring personal character traits to the surface. Sociability is just one dimension, though. There’s also our adaptability, our ability to cope with crisis or uncertainty, our reaction to being told what to do – or to no longer being told what to do.
Not only do the strictures reveal our traits, they seem also to intensify them. To continue with the bestiary, whilst I’m really quite a happy puffin, pottering about the burrow and making occasional forays along the local coastline, I am, it turns out, sharing my space with a wandering albatross that’s flapping about with increasing agitation.
Character traits also play out against the particulars of our situation. (With the prevailing conditions again tending to push things to the extremes; work is all or nothing, we are with family 24/7 or never. ) So, for example, and to return to the social aspect, a sloth in glorious isolation will hang happy, but a sloth forced to share the branch with other sloths, or – worse – a family of displaced and discombobulated meerkats – might be pretty stressed.
With these amplified differences in character and situation, it could feel as if our social distance is becoming a psychological one. But, at the same time and with equal efficiency, the situation reveals our common humanity in all its interconnectedness. BC, it was sort of possible to carry on under the illusion that we could pursue our own individual path, doing our own thing in our own time. Now, it couldn’t be clearer: we’re all in it together. The truth is that we were always in it together. However much we may feel like different species at times, we’re all on the same planet.
I have to admit that my poem today isn’t a new one. (Well that’s a slippery slope, said the Wandering Albatross.) I’ve got a new one started but it hasn’t quite fallen into place yet. However, I’ve been tidying my old poem collection and, in the course of rounding them up from various corners of the computer into one neat folder, I found this one. It was written for quite another sort of occasion, but, there’s something there about difference which seems to resonate. So I thought I’d dust it off and give it an airing while the other one sorts itself out. And here end the animal analogies. For now, at least.
You are to me …
so often an owl –
an elegant soul,
night flyer –
And sometimes a sanglier* –
a secretive creature
from deep in the forest –
But also a puffin –
on the edge,
in the moment.
A sea otter’s you, too,
at home on the deep,
and in sleep,
so we don’t drift off.
Would I weren’t a hedgehog –
hugging the ground,
a pricklish kind,
too easily flattened,
but on clear nights now,
looking up at an owl.
* Wild boar, Cingularis porcus
Reflections from a home front: 7
It’s the worst of times. But also, in some corners, the best of times. Bad news for the elderly, the economy and those still in formal education; good news for Amazon and – for that matter, maybe – The Amazon.
It depends, of course, on who you are and where you are and also perhaps on what you are. How you feel about being in isolation, for example, might depend on what kind of animal you happen to be. Meerkats are scrabbling at the walls; sloths are hanging cool and couldn’t be happier.
Some of those having a better time seem to find it a tricky admission. For few enjoying quiet pleasure wouldn’t feel a twinge of guilt when the world is in pain. It’s partly social conditioning. It looks inappropriate to be enjoying ourselves when others aren’t. We can also shift the blame, at least partially, onto our poor old brain. In its drive for efficiency, it prefers to file things in neat and tidy categories. A this or a that; a good thing or a bad thing. But only partially. We do of course have the ability to move beyond facile judgment, to hold uncertainty and to stay with conflicting, layered emotions. But it’s a kind of wisdom and we have mature into it. We have to learn to accommodate and appreciate nuance, complexity, ambiguity and paradox – and to navigate amongst them.
As so many have observed, these things have been disappearing from a public discourse that tends to black-and-white binaries – as evidenced by the whole sorry Brexit affair. But perhaps now, in this very different kind of crisis, it may be easier to see the texture of a bigger picture. Perhaps, as we enact the tensions of the situation within our own lives – mourning a friend’s death even as we clap for the NHS – we’re apprehending more of our entangled reality.
Perhaps the distance we now feel, from each other and from normal life, might afford the kind of perspective we need to reset our course. Perhaps, from the distance of years to come, we could be celebrating the legacy of the best.
Of course any kind of final balance is a long way off – as if these things could be put in the scales anyway. But the eventual reading will be up to us.
The world’s invaded by some viral strain.
Contagious care can never be contained.
So long the queues; so scarce delivery slots.
We bake our daily bread, we tend our plots.
School’s out; we’re on indefinite staycation.
We’re in for an exclusive education.
Performances are pulled from every stage.
Play spills across the screen and down the page.
No trips are now advised; all flights have ceased.
Just bird song carries on the sweetened breeze.
Two metres’ rule has pushed us all apart.
We pull the strings that stretch between our hearts.
Within the pupal shroud all things dissolve
And secretly refold, and in the spring –
Behold, the blaze of unsuspected wings!
Reflections from a home front: 6
Several times a day, we hear phrases such as ‘In these extraordinary days’ or ’In these strange times’. Already they are sounding a bit tired, but what else to say? Then there’s the ubiquitous ’Keep safe’ and other duck-billed platitudes. But you do have to say something.
We are at the point where language runs out on us. But from the distance of the screen, we don’t have a lot else. You cannot Zoom a hug; words are all we have. Though, somehow, miraculously, even our bumbling clichés become freighted with recognition of our shared experience and understanding.
Nevertheless, also we need our words to do more. In other words, we need poetry – and we need stories and images and song. Even at a time when attention is on practical action and sacrificial altruism, we need art.
Human beings in extremis have always turned to creative expression through words, notes and marks. And some of the art we need speaks directly of, or out of, the present strictures and suffering – a crucial complement to the multiplying reports and analysis. But it doesn’t have to. Truth about the human condition is really all we need.
We need it, not only as respite from uncomfortable reality, or as a window onto the wider, forbidden world, or simply to make us smile – vital though all those things must be. More urgently, we need it to articulate our feeling in all its complexity, and to tease out meaning. We need it to seed our imaginations so we see how things could be different. We need it to imagine that the world already is different from that constructed by our easy assumptions.
Ultimately, art lifts our eyes and enables us to see our present circumstances, and ourselves, within a bigger picture, a meta-narrative. That may be a faith story or it may be something else.
This week happens to be the week that two major faiths remember and celebrate the stories at their heart – both of which happen to be stories of suffering and death. On the other side of which, is life. Today’s poem might be a Good Friday poem, or it might be a response to the current situation, or it may be something else. It just arrived, and I wouldn’t want to be too prescriptive about it. You can hear me read it by clicking on the play button.
On Friday, as I walked apace,
Taking in the scenery,
The ground my foot found
The world spun round
And I went down,
Traffic, hedges, road – all gone.
Holes in roads are commonplace
And mostly fenced, with signs and cones.
Not always, though. And now below,
Much deeper than you would believe,
I breathe the dark and wait alone.
Wires of ancient roots intrude,
Through earthen walls. And then I glimpse
The splintered bones and glassy flints
And seasoned seeds in ribboned strips –
The secret treasures of the deep.
The stippled strata, neatly pressed
Are ripples of arrested time.
My months and minutes read the same:
Measure makes no meaning here
Where rhythms cease to tune the mind.
Mingled voices, feet and birdsong
Strain from somewhere out of sight
Above the shining mouth. And like
A single sapling, soft and slow,
I’ll grow towards the light.
Reflections from a home front: 5
In a new BBC public information film, Steve Coogan’s alter ego, Alan Partridge, has been drafted in to urge us to ‘Set a routine to get through staying in’. An unlikely bit of wartime propaganda. Certainly not as galvanizing as ‘Dig for Victory’ or ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’, Although, thinking about it, we could perhaps do some useful recycling here. I propose, to encourage online shopping: ‘Click for Victory’. And one for this sunny weekend: ‘Careless walks cost lives’. But the Partridge point is well made. If we’re leading monkish lives, then it might make sense to impose some kind of order.
Of course, at a purely practical level, a strict routine just helps you get more done. I think nostalgically of the school timetable. There was something hugely liberating about it – the dread of Wednesdays with Games and double German notwithstanding. No hour-to-hour or minute-to-minute decisions about what best to do next. No exceptions allowed. All you have to do is show up, day in day out, and stick with the programme. How on earth did we manage to do all those O levels in parallel? I’m sure I’d struggle to do even one now.
But beyond simply ‘getting though’ and mere productivity, there is something very useful in the monastic idea of the Rule of Life. It originated with the Desert Fathers, a community of mystics in Egypt around the third century AD. Then in 516 it was formalised in The Rule of St Benedict, created to bring some structure to the messiness of a busy communal life with all its domestic demands, and for that to be reflected in the inner life.
Superficially, a Rule of Life may not sound very attractive. The association of ‘rules’ with things like conformity, rigidity and submission to authority is unfortunate. Because a Rule of Life is not imposed from outside but from within. It’s crafted and honed by each individual, a work of art in itself. If the outer structure is right, it holds and nurtures the inner life – the life of spirituality, intellect and creativity. As Alex Poon has documented, the trope of the freewheeling creative is a myth. A survey of creative and intellectual high achievers reveals an almost universal adherence to routine. Creativity needs boundaries. Framework creates freedom. Few put it better than the poet, Mary Oliver:
What some might call the restrictions of the daily office they find to be an opportunity to foster the inner life. The hours are appointed and named… Life’s fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers… And if you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.
Moreover, we are are intrinsically rhythmic creatures. Subconsciously, we entrain to rhythms at every level: the ebb and flow of the seasons; the daily cycle of light and dark that resets our body clocks; the pulse of music, the beat of another heart. We flourish when our lives are so measured.
One unexpected benefit of this time has been that I’ve been able to reclaim something of life’s natural rhythm as well as trying out new daily routines. The eerily blank diary has helped, of course. With a clear week of evenings, we’ve allocated each one to different activity. Thus, for example, Wednesdays are for learning a skill. The husband is polishing his Spanish, and I’m planning to teach myself Latin, for which there was regrettably no room in that school timetable. (Lest we sound like a couple of swats, Fridays is for Netflix.)
So to today’s not entirely serious (though not entirely frivolous) poem. Just for fun, each stanza contains at least one quotation or an allusion to a line from Shakespeare. So, if you have a space in your schedule, you can see if you can name all the plays (fewer plays than stanzas). Bonus marks for the characters.
It’s Monday, and a brave new world .
We have a plan; we’ll make it work.
First, Pilates, for a boost,
Learn Italian, start on Proust.
On Tuesday, we return once more
Unto the breach, and take a tour
Of three museums, make some bread,
Organise the garden shed.
On Wednesday we detect a sound
So rich and strange. We hunt around –
Not smoke alarm, nor mobile tone …
Aha! It is the telephone.
Friday creeps at petty pace.
The walls press in; we press escape,
Then spend a happy afternoon
Zoomed into next door’s living room.
Oh now it’s Friday. Now we see
Time’s out of joint, and so are we.
Caught in this life’s revolving door,
We stiffen our resolve once more.
No-end weekend, daily Sabbath –
Method will o’ercome the madness.
When Monday comes, we will divine
The syllables of common time.
 Esther de Waal, writing abut monastic spirituality, observes that regula, a feminine noun, carries ‘gentle connotations: a signpost, a railing, something that gives me support’. From The Way of Simplicity.
 From Darwin to Dickens, these high achievers from a wide range of fields have characteristically disciplined routines that allow not only for work but also for ample leisure. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Rest.