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.
Reflections from a home front: 4
My day begins with an early-morning walk across the fields and along the river. This isn’t just my daily exercise allowance; I’ve done it for ages, combining exercise, thinking, prayer, more thinking, and allowing the morning light to recalibrate my body clock so I sleep at night. 
Even so, like many people, I’m discovering a new dimension to my relationship with the natural world. Today, as I walked by the quickening hedges with their snowdrifts of blackthorn blossom, then stood with the willows on riverbank, watching lapwings in the field opposite, it was hard to remember there was anything wrong with the day. It all stood in glorious counterpoint to the world of national emergency and social upheaval. One of what Robert Macfarlane, tweeting a photo of his apple tree, called ‘anchor-points for a world turned upside-down’ .
At one level, corona confinement means almost any change of scene is welcome. Even the living room next door would provide some relief. Plus, there’s nothing like short supply to boost appreciation. Just as if you’re allowed a single cup of coffee/meal/piece of chocolate a day, you linger and savour and drain every last drop of the experience.
At a deeper level, the natural world is vital for human flourishing. Research is confirming what so many know intuitively: that being outside in the natural or wild or created world (as you will) is a boost to wellbeing. 
Deeper still, we are who we are in relation to the natural world. We gain a kind of wisdom from it. Not information, nor even an understanding of how it all works, wonderful and helpful though that is. But a slowly developing sense of the order of things – the rhythms, the variety, the abundance, the intricacy. An intuition that enables us to see differently.
For the created, natural, wild world calls forth a different kind of attention. Its the opposite of the camera-phone, ‘snap now – look later’ mode, and more akin to John Ruskin’s practice of drawing in order to observe. Ruskin thought that everyone should learn to draw nature as a way of learning to really look, to notice. This card, which I’ve kept in my study for thirty years to remind me of that, shows his extraordinary capacity for observation and, I think, the appreciation that followed.
Sometimes, being in extremis can also bring the detail into focus and inspire appreciation. The painter and poet, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, after an experience of grief, wrote a lovely little poem called ‘The Woodspurge’. The last two stanzas describe how, tired out after walking in the wind, he sat on a bank with his head in his hands:
My eyes, wide open, had the run
You can read the whole poem here. We don’t know what occasioned his state of mind, but he conveys beautifully that experience of gaining a deep, significant impression from a moment of intense emotion.
There is something of that, too, in my morning walks these days. Though living in Cambridge for years, I have always viewed its environs as a poor excuse for countryside. When people say to me, ‘Cambridge must be a wonderful place to live,’ I’ve always said, ‘Yes but I wish it was somewhere else.’ I’ve always felt myself to be in exile, and felt that unless a walk involved a decent incline, some bracken paths and probably some wet slate, it wasn’t a walk worth the boot.
Of course, I’ve made do. But now in this time out of time, I’m beginning to notice the beauty in this place. It’s not Cumbria or Wales (still, alas) but there is much to notice and appreciate. I’ve thought about taking up drawing again, thirty years after the art degree, but I’d be rusty and fear I may not get it back. Drawing with words feels more natural these days. Strangely, my poetry writing has never really ventured into the natural world before, but yesterday I made a first foray. Here it is. You can hear me read the poem by clicking on the play button.
From smudged fields into watercoloured skies
Rise the sudden silhouettes. Their cries
Plangent as seabirds’, and edged
With trills, like the frills
On paddle wings that pull
This way and that, trying themselves out
In every direction.
The flailing wing that leads the prey away
Over the ground, now freely draws my eye
To an air display. And in the midst –
That dive, outstripping gravity.
Plummet and recover;
1. It really does work.
2. For an overview of the research from across disciplines, see here.
Reflections from a home front: 3
With so many of our day-to-day encounters now at a respectful physical distance, or online, we’ve been forced to remodel our communication with family, friends and work colleagues. And it’s making me think about the effects on our individual and collective flourishing.
For some, the enforced isolation means complete loss of physical touch – and our human need for touch is well researched. If, as babies, we are not cuddled and held, we fail to thrive; as adults, receiving a simple touch on the arm can lower our blood pressure and release the happy hormone, oxytocin. (I’m very aware that many people lack this near-necessity – with or without social distancing.)
Although there’s no substitute for human touch, it may be that the voice can play a vital and vitalising part. The spoken word can be almost tactile in its effects. And as radio dramatists know, the voice in the ear can create a powerful sense of intimacy. Social researcher William Condon observes how the speaker’s thoughts are translated into muscle movements and then into airwaves that make the listener’s eardrum vibrate in absolute synchrony – so that ‘we’re almost in auditory touch’.
There’s an ancient connection between human speech and touch. For early humans, close relationships among social groups were important and bonds between individuals were maintained through lengthy one-to-one grooming. But it’s thought that when the groups became too large for everyone to spend time grooming everyone else, speech (or, more likely, a kind of song) emerged to fill the gap. 
Perhaps now, as the friendly handshake and reassuring touch are off-limits for all but the cohabiting, the voice might help to fill the current gap. In a reinvigoration of the old BT campaign, we might find ‘it’s good to talk’.
These are all notes to self. Perhaps it’s because I’m rather an intravert, I’ve always found it strangely difficult to pick up the phone. Even more strangely, I almost always find that in the event, a tele- conversation is relatively easy and often rewarding – but never seem to learn from this. I think it’s initiating a possibly unwelcome interruption that I find so hard. The husband, a natural and enthusiastic phoner, clearly thinks this is wilful madness. But it’s so much more comfortable to type an email. I know where I am with writing. In the last few days, however, with the current situation as a safe pretext, I’ve been braving some phone calls. Admittedly, I’ve begun with people who I know are more used to phones than computers – but it’s a start. And actually it has been wonderful to connect and reconnect with friends. (There is of course the whole new world of video calling, but that’s for another reflection.)
I’m reminded of Robert Macfarlane’s lovely etymological exploration of the word tact, which, as he points out, is at the root of both tactful and tactile.
Tactful language, then, would be language which sings (is lyric), which touches (is born of contact with the lived and felt world), which touches us (affects) and which keeps time – recommending thereby an equality of measure and a keen faculty of perception. (From Landmarks, 2015)
So today’s poem is a reflection on the tactile voice that can stroke our hands and our hearts. You can have an actual voice by clicking on the play button.
‘Yes’ – a spoken word;
This tactful hand of mine.
‘It’s tough!’ – the teasing line;
Playful punching on your arm.
‘I know’ – the lovely charm
Slips across your shoulder.
‘My love’ – a touching whisper;
A kiss so softly blown.
‘I am here’ – the steady tone;
The blessing on your brow.
1. A friend has asked, quite rightly, well how would anyone know? A lot of the research has been done by Robin Dunbar, and he gives a fascinating an accessible account in The Human Story (2004).
Reflections from a home front: 2
Last night, I was reflecting that two weekends ago I was in earnest email consultations with some fellow committee members about whether we should go ahead our annual Philippa Pearce Lecture – this year with extra centenary celebrations and a short play. With heavy hearts, we agreed that we would cancel the event at the end of March. Back then, it felt like a hard-won decision; now, there would be no discussion. Then the husband pointed out it wasn’t two weeks ago; it was last week. So it was. Last weekend is a foreign country. And we are in exile. The changes to our lives over the past seven days would have unimaginable at the beginning of the months before, and each day the walls have closed further in.
At the same time, in a kind of equal and opposite reaction, the rate of response has also been extraordinary. During the WW2 commemorations I was struck by how people then pulled together, doing what they had to do. And I worried that we are now so used to our individual freedoms, so self-sufficient in so many ways, so cocooned in our digital bubbles, that if we were to face anything comparable we would simply crumple. But our human resilience and resourcefulness has come to the fore and everyone has swung into action. There are online choirs, book groups, museum tours, worship services. Churches and other community groups have set up schemes to keep in touch with the housebound and deliver food and support. My neighbour has initiated a WhatsApp support group for our street (I now know more of their names than in 20 years of living here). And in hand-sanitiser news, the husband received a letter from his old Cambridge College, which enclosed a bookmark and individual hand-wipe sachet. Quite touching in its way.
I’m struck, too by the speed at which all this seems to have become bedded in. You would not know from the way the weekend papers were talking about The Closures that it was a days-old phenomenon. Meanwhile WFH has taken its place amongst FOMO, HTH and the rest in what must be record time.
Me, I feel as if I’m struggling to keep up and my mind is working overtime to process it all. It feels very like when there’s been a death in the family. Every morning, as I have woken to the sun seeping round the edge of the blind, I’ve had that micro-moment where you remember what day it is, then get a vague recollection that something awful has happened, then immediately recall what it was and that it’s a day in which someone you loved is no longer in the world. Periodically during the day, too, I’ve had to pinch myself, metaphorically. As life as we knew it unravels, we've all suffered loss. Whilst we sort of knew the existing order was under increasing threat from various directions, we now have to adjust to the fact that an apocalypse really is now at hand. (Interestingly, though, the Greek word at its root, apokalypsis / ἀποκάλυψις, means a revealing or unveiling of things previously hidden.)
Today’s poem is part of my attempt at adjustment. You can hear me read it by clicking on the play button.
The State We’re In
The writing’s on the wall
And across the ceiling.
It’s a house of cards
And no one is dealing.
We’re home alone,
That knock at the door
Is likely the wolf.
The rubber hits the road;
The road hits back.
The wheels have come off
And there’s no beaten track.
We’re off the map
And way up the creek,
Without a paddle
And springing a leak.
Worse things happen at sea.
They never said what.
We're all at sea now,
Like it or not.
Here be dragons …
And here … Don’t stop!
There are dragons, in fact,
All over the shop.
We’re facing the music.
We’re taking our chance.
Wait – there’s still music?
Yes, there’s still music.
It’s time to make music
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.)
My guest post on the Children's Poetry Summit Blog.
Something’s afoot. As Michael Rosen said at the outset – and as blog on blog has attested – there’s a Sense of Revival. Children’s poetry is all abuzz – as is poetry generally. As Michael Rosen also says, it’s hard to say why – why now? But it’s an interesting question, nevertheless. …
Read the whole post.
That's the title of our piece in today's TES (Times Educational Supplement). It has some rather handsome graphics, though as it happens none of the featured poems were actually picked by anyone in our survey. But I'm sure someone knows them. Full feature here.