SOMETIMES WHEN I wake in the middle of the night – which I invariably do – I go through a calming repertoire, to try and coax myself back to sleep. Breathing meditations. Reiki hand positions – one hand on the heart, the other on the solar plexus – to settle my nervous system. (See Reiki and the Anxious Mind) I conjure memories of mountains and the sea. The faces of beloved family and friends.
But last night, I simply asked for one word, to help me through these difficult days and nights. The word that came – unprompted and immediate – was DELICACY. What? I shrugged my shoulders and fell back asleep.
It is rare that I remember any of my nocturnal adventures, my wild dreams and waking ramblings, by the time the morning comes. But today was different. Delicacy. There it was again. A message from the ether. But what could it mean?
Times of Crisis and Extremity
There have been times in my life before, when the pressure has built over time, and become extreme and constant. There were crisis points in my husband Tim’s ten year struggle with cancer, when I felt my body and spirit ready to crack open with the strain. And then there was the terrible fear and stigma of the AIDs era, when I watched three young men die in quick succession, after trying, along with a valiant bunch of close friends, to nurse our stricken pals at home, through raging fevers, night sweats, skin eruptions, opportunistic cancers and pneumonia. How hopelessly inadequate we all felt, locked in a culture that both ostracised and demonised the people dear to us, in the hour of their deepest need. How ill equipped were the hospitals (!) And how frightened we all were, of becoming infected ourselves, as well as losing those we loved.
The Corona Virus is different. When my husband got sick, and died in 2004, I felt lonely, isolated, and out of step with all my contemporaries, as they built their careers, their relationships, their families, with healthy and unsullied ambitions for the future. My only ambition was to get through each day, somehow intact. And when my friends were dying in the 1990s, we all felt outside the culture, betrayed by the country we lived in. Those were the days of anti-gay propaganda, of scaremongering public notices on television, with images of icebergs, swirling mists, and doom laden voiceovers. But the Corona Virus is no bigot. It picks on any and all of us. And in this strange new world, we are all vulnerable, all scared and alone. Together.
Week Three of my own self imposed lockdown is over. A pattern begins to emerge, of good days, followed by bad; of energetic mornings, leading to deadened afternoons; of a constant underlying fatigue, which has nothing at all to do with work achieved, or energy expended, and everything to do with Fight or Flight – because what do you do, when you can’t run from the threat, or beat it? You collapse a little inside, and you surrender. Sleepiness as a constant companion, feels natural to me, in an unnatural context.
Wise Words and a Helping Hand
Like everyone else, I am reaching for mechanisms to cope, when my usual weekly rhythm of teaching and theatre work – which is such an extravert and people-friendly endeavour – has skidded to a halt. But as a writer, too, solitude comes easily to me. By nature an introvert, staying at home is hardly a problem. Until staying at home stretches into the foreseeable future that is, with no option of breaking the quarantine, without putting myself – and others – in danger.
It is memory and previous experience which comes to my aid now. I remember one particular encounter at traffic lights, nearly twenty years ago. The woman standing next to me was pushing a pram with a new born baby inside. The baby was very sick – there were oxygen bottles and tubes, tucked in among the soft toys and the fleecy blankets. I knew this woman slightly, and had heard about her baby. And I knew, too, that the baby was not expected to survive much longer.
At the time, my husband was coming to the end of his life too, and I was tense, exhausted, near despair. As can happen at times like this, two near strangers, with nothing to lose, and no thought of the usual self protective conventions, reached out and revealed their inner selves, by way of consolation.
I found myself confiding in this woman, who listened, kindly and calmly, before offering me a piece of advice. ” This is what I have found in my situation. The thing to do is to notice and appreciate the smallest details of your life. What is it that brings you pleasure? The bigger picture is impossible right now. But you can enjoy a brief ray of sunshine, the sound of a bird, the smile on a friend’s face. All you have is what you have right now, in this moment, with each passing breath. And it’s precious.”
The things she was saying are commonplace now, with the growth of the mindfulness movement, and the increasing use of meditation as a tool for calming the over-anxious mind. But at the time, the way she spoke felt rare. I have never forgotten our brief encounter, and – yes – the delicacy of her words. There was real wisdom in her philosophy, which had been learned and practised in extremis.
The Delicacy of Small Delights
The baby did die, not longer afterwards. My husband died too. But this woman’s words live on in my mind. And now, in domestic lockdown, I find myself practising what she preached: being grateful for the taste of good, simple food; enjoying the way the sunlight catches the acid green of new spring growth in my garden and in the nearby wood; finding time to study and to read; discovering the delicacy of small delights, in a world where anything bigger than my own house and back garden, feels overwhelming and out of control. I am learning to honour the breaths that I take. In such troubled times, it is not selfish or frivolous to take pleasure in the everyday beauty of our lives: instead, it feels more urgent, more compelling than ever before.