I wish it wasn’t true, but there is no teacher like adversity. And the lessons that come from sudden calamity are often the ones that teach us the most. The learning is far from over, because our shadowy visitor hasn’t just dropped in for the weekend, it has yet more to impart. It is not at all like the benign sand that occasionally blows up from the Sahara to dust our cars silently in the night. It’s not even like the once-dormant Icelandic volcano that spumed plumes around the world, grounding me in Portugal on this month ten years ago. No, this is something more akin to the work of Doctor Frankenstein had he poisoned the sand, contaminated the volcanic ash, and liberated his toxic mix to blanket the earth.
Other calamities can be run away from; usually we can put distractions between ourselves and whatever the misfortune is. We can go out and meet people, go shopping, go to the pub, the cinema – the usual zoning out techniques. But not this time. This time, there are limited options to zone out. We can try our best to stay busy while keeping the word at arm’s length, but the stark reality is that isolation [in some form] is cuddled up close to us at all times.
In the beginning, the isolation – especially for the over-worked – may have been welcome, for others it felt novel, even perversely interesting, in the same way that a dead whale washed up on a beach is interesting, initially. But it’s not long before we see the tragedy and sadness in the dead whale; the scale and bulk of it, the loss, and the wonderment as to how and if it will ever be washed back out to sea. And then we don’t want to see it anymore. It is too dark an image to stomach and so we avoid that section of beach, hope a digger will come and bury it. Out of sight, out of mind.
Enough time has passed now for us to face up to the reality that we are in a longer-term place of waiting. Recognising this has, in the last week or so, brought me firefly flickers in the darkness with tiny insights from the abyss. I’ve come to rest in a peaceful boredom from which fleeting, hard to grasp moments of pure contentment begin to settle. I can’t put my finger on what it is I am coming to know or understand because, so far, it’s a wordless feeling.
I am sitting in silence more and more. It started by switching off the news on the radio, but now it has extended to music. The hum of the fridge is enough, along with the everyday urban soundscape drifting in from my open kitchen window: the beeps of a reversing bin lorry, pigeons cooing out shimmering tremolos, the hammering of the man in the back green building a summer seat from pallets. With slow care I peel an apple, seeing just how fine a layer of skin I can remove. I take a photograph of a plant that folds its petals away for the night. I pick forget-me-nots in London Road Gardens and bring them home and put them in a small glass vase of almost the same colour – the pale blue of the sky half an hour after dawn. I stare at the tiny clusters of flowers, blue stars with white eyes pinned with gold, and I never before realised they had a scent as subtle as their gently arching fronds. I read something and pull to a stop at the word synchysis. I don’t know it and look it up: a rhetorical technique wherein words are intentionally scattered to create bewilderment. Scattered and bewildered – I know that place, it’s only to be got out of when you get to know it.
Yes, it is a good feeling after all, this solitude. It’s making me go deeper, dig in, find a foundation within myself that I’d forgotten I had. Nature has taken control, given me a clip round the ear, forced me to dive beneath surface living. I befriend time: slow time, fast time, no time. I re-engage with ritual of the small things: brewing coffee; slow breakfast; slower second breakfast; dressing for dinner; not dressing for dinner; noticing my breathing; listening to my breathing; reading in a sunlit window; watching a baby crawl on facetime; saying prayers; making eye contact on walks; remembering birthdays. I embrace the soft willpower of doing less.
And how much of this will remain with me when the virus has been washed back out to sea, when the dust blows through? I don’t know. And precisely what – since this is how you started it all – is the calamity lesson that I am being taught? I haven’t a clue.
Each Flower is a Little Night, by Philippe Jacottet (trans, Derek Mahon)
Each flower is a little night
pretending to draw near
But where its scent rises
I cannot hope to enter
which is why it bothers me
so much and why I sit so long
before this closed door
Each colour, each incarnation
begins where the eyes stop
This world is merely the tip
of an unseen conflagration