Happy birthday to me!

Our four-night trip to Rome was a family adventure for my 40th birthday.

Perhaps the previous week’s surprise night away, cancelled at the very last minute because of an ill kid, should have been a reminder of the futility of forward-planning (especially when children and viruses are a factor). Maybe we should have sucked up the financial hit, paid more attention to news reports of Italy’s developing Coronavirus situation and ditched the trip.

But the culture, the sun, the not-been-abroad-for-ages feeling, the gelatti… And no official advice not to travel.

We didn’t take the cosmic hint, and headed off to Rome. Here’s what happened next.

#21. Having enough

Right at the beginning of this crazy time, one of the children drew a picture of the awesome wild party we’d throw when lockdown ended. For a while it was pinned over the (empty) wall planner – a talisman of hope just as evocative as the rainbows in the window. The drawing shows an awning in the garden, with everyone we know crowding under a banner proclaiming ‘No Corona’. There’s a table laden with food and apparently everyone is staying up all night. I’m certain the banner refers to the virus not a lack of beer, because there’s also a figure lying under the table eating crisps.

Over the last few weeks though it’s become clearer that this isn’t going to end with huge party. In fact, it’s not going to end, at least not in any timeframe we can predict or control. A new way of being is slowly emerging; where we live with risks we didn’t have any point of reference for a few weeks ago, where we accept restrictions to the freedoms we’ve assumed are a right, where we have to surrender to uncertainty because otherwise all our energy will drain away in fruitless planning.

Over the last four months I’ve felt confused, angry, frequently scared, sometimes despairing. I’ve also felt hope, joy and contentment, and sensed the freshness of opportunity that comes with upheaval and change. And although it’s often required a conscious effort, I’ve also felt so grateful for the good and important bits we are fortunate to have – material security but mostly family, safety, time to slow down and look and think.

Last December Kinross Parish Church was visited by a guy called Dalmas, in Scotland on a school exchange. He was so enthusiastic and articulate, glowing with a radiance that makes it clear his life will leave the world a better place. He recently sent a message to the church, signing off with a blessing that we should have ‘all that you need’. And this seems to me such a profound wish for all of us, all of the time but especially as we fumblingly work out a better way of living well. Even more movingly profound when it’s given by a young person facing Coronavirus in the Kibera slum on the outskirts of Nairobi, where you must pay for water to drink, let alone wash your hands.

I’ve had so many conversations about what is essential, what it is we really need – and the answer is always the same: relationships and human connections. Our family has that and so so much more: outdoors and space; indoor comfort; food to make us lockdown-plump; insects and a celebratory kaleidoscope of wildflowers I’m only starting to learn the names of. We have more than enough.

This week as lockdown restrictions have eased, the children have been able to hug their friends and family again. I hadn’t quite realised what not being able to do that had meant for them. Witnessing them laughing and hugging tightly, over and over, is beautiful and joyful and a release.

It’s not the right time to stock up on beer and crisps and unroll the ‘No Corona’ banner; it might never be. But that matters less. We’re beginning to understand that the celebration was always going on, and a hug is enough.

#20. Risky play

For the last few weeks (or do we count in phases now?) of lockdown, our garden has looked more than a bit like one of those junk yard play spaces that sprang up in the aftermath of the Second World War on empty bomb sites. We have an exotic mixture of wooden pallets, mud, tyres, sharp things, rusty things, heavy long metal things and long spiky things, along with some bike-scorched grass and a very rickety climbing frame. Unlike the Danish founders of junk yard adventure playgrounds who deliberately provided spaces to allow children to explore, our collection is just because the tip has been shut.

It didn’t take long for the neatly stacked parts from the disassembled trampoline to be raked through and creatively repurposed, along with the tyres and pallets and other things of danger. The children have taken over and made their own play space: over lockdown they’ve built dens, rafts, obstacle courses, speedboats, assorted machines, various factories, a Viking ship, a ‘secret’ bunker and a theatre with backstage ‘electrics’. Sometimes they are film props or settings for imaginative play, and sometimes it’s purely for the fun and challenge of building.

It’s also often risky – which is obviously part of the fun. It’s glorious to watch them creating and playing and working out the balance of risk and skill that fits their mood, and I’m happy for them to take risks like this because I can see it’s good for them. Lessons have been learned about things like why you need to be careful about dropping bricks when you’re not wearing shoes, how to get a splinter out and what happens when you clonk your brother with one of the long heavy things – but we have not (yet) had to visit A&E.

From the 1950s on, research around junk playgrounds showed the developmental importance of risky play – one of the positive outcomes being adults who can judge risk appropriately. Well, my childhood was quite high on junk and rusty bits, but it’s exactly this balance of risk versus benefit that I’m currently finding impossible.

Since lockdown has begun to be lifted and the risk-benefit judgements are increasingly handed over to individuals, the decisions have become endless. Venturing outside our garden, the array of risks we have to navigate has become a muddled cocktail.

While we were fully locked down, we knew what we were meant to do. One risk – of catching or passing on Covid-19 – surpassed all others. But now… There’s the risk of contravening increasingly complex (and sometimes arbitrary?) guidelines; the risk of offending people because you want to socialise with them but don’t want to break the rules; the risk of upsetting people because they think you don’t want to socialise with them; the risk of having forgotten how to socialise; the risk of bothering people by socialising in the wrong way; the risk of not socialising on your children’s well-being; the risk of socialising on your children’s health; the risk of returning FOMO; the risk of needing a pee when the public toilets are shut.

Plus, to paraphrase Nicola Sturgeon, surely our memories are not so short that we’ve forgotten how devastating this virus has been, and can still be. My memory of being low-risk but still ending up not having a very good time, is fresh. So add that subjective, experienced-based risk filter. And then add that small children are physiologically unable to maintain a 2m distance from anyone or anything, and in fact prefer to kiss/touch/lick/cuddle/sneeze on all things at all times. Throw all that into your risk-benefit matrix and… lockdown was lonely, but it was way less confusing.

So if the risks are many and baffling, intertwined and weighted with different benefits and probabilities – what to do? Eliminate? Mitigate? Embrace it? Find a new way of living with risk?

There’s apparently now a children’s playground designed to be infection-free in a time of pandemic: Rimbin keeps children in separate playpods. It’s completely risk and lick-free – and looks fairly funless. And of course that’s the thing: if we live fully, we live with risk all the time. And quite often risky is fun or the fun is risky; I know that’s the case in our garden. Until I can again make peace with the risks and find the fun, I might build a den.

#19. Butterflies

During another fumbled home education attempt, this time trying to explain the difference between similes and metaphors, I realised why I’ve not felt like writing for the last couple of weeks. We were looking at the chrysalides hanging around in a net in our kitchen and talking about their stillness. The caterpillars that bumbled around the bottom of their plastic pot had finally climbed onto the ceiling of their little world and hooked themselves up to be remade. Inside, apparently, their caterpillar bodies were turned completely to soup.

We don’t walk all over our food, shed our hairy skins entirely in one piece or live in a see-through pot (although after nearly three months I suspect our neighbours know a lot more about our life than we’d like to think) but as far as metaphors go, a chrysalis suits.

Over the last fortnight or so I ran out of effort; for Coronavirus news, for plan-making, keeping up, for being shocked. We are all tired. It’s been enough to try and stay healthy, keep everyone fed, squint at the sunshine. We’ve shut down some functions and turned inwards to conserve energy.

My inwardness was also I think to do with processing my own experience of the (suspected) Covid-19 virus. Two months on from being really quite ill, I’m mostly better – just a bit of a cough and spells of breathlessness that occasionally arrive unannounced. But it’s taking a much longer time to be able to tell myself the story of how it went. Basically, as I felt this illness move through my body I thought it might well kill me, and prepared myself accordingly. Obviously, it didn’t, so that’s good, but it seems that this confrontation with mortality has left a mark.

Slowly emerging again has taken the form of feeling quite anxious about lifting of lockdowns, a resistance to rushing anything, a happily returning appreciation of gallows humour (best fact of the week: ‘Barnard Castle’ is an old English expression for a poor excuse), and a fair bit of over-sharing in socially-distanced shopping queues (sorry about that).

Today our chrysalises hatched; one moment zipped in and silent, the next an empty papery shell and a whole new creature stretching its wings. They’re completely beautiful; feathered, iridescent, strong and fragile. Being amazed at perfection formed from a soup of cells can never become a cliche.

I don’t want to hurry opening our shell. This is caution about a virus I don’t want anyone to have to experience but it’s also a bit of soupiness; I’m not yet sure what we’ll emerge as. Of course we’re all desperate to rush forward to the good bits; to hugs with family and being really present with other humans; the bits we know we’re made for. But collectively scurrying back to much of what stood for normal life before it all stopped, seems such a waste.

I’ve spotted some flamboyant lockdown mowhawks and rainbow hairdos recently, as if, in some ways at least, this time is a free pass for exploring, expressing and for questioning society’s expectations. I’m sure for lots of us that goes beyond hair.

I think as humans we’re far too far from where we began to expect to climb out to anything near perfection. But maybe if we see this incubation out, spend this time exploring and gathering strength, the future will at least have more room for fragile beauty.

#18. Stay alert

In a new height (or depth) of PR flim flam, today’s Prime-ministerial broadcast will apparently urge us to stay alert in order to save lives. Whether we should be alert at home or out and about is currently unclear, as is the science behind alertness as a protection against viral infection. I suspect alertness will turn out to be a new way of being economically active. Anyway, as always it seems, our government is behind the curve: we’ve been maintaining a state of alertness for the last two months.

We may still be in pyjamas mid-morning and the days often pass in a misty haze that leaves me wondering if time has slowed down, however we are anything but inattentive.

We are hyper-aware of the inhuman oddness of social distancing, of the constant ache of knowing that the families of over 30,000 here are grieving those they have lost suddenly. We are conscious of the shame of the UK’s avoidable death toll. We’re heedful of the growing list of un-done Google classroom assignments, of the tensions of trying to work while caring for confused children. We are alert to the bluster and fluff surrounding tests and strategies. We are mindful of creeping NHS privatisation and public healthcare as charity, attentive to the possibly impossible task of inventing a vaccine. We’re attuned to the aches of our bodies; every slight cough is amplified.

Our emotions are acutely raw. The funerals we’ve virtually attended are searingly beautiful, even though we’re sitting safe on our own sofa. We are alert, and on the constant cusp of despair, anger, hope.

It’s exhausting, but there are unexpected advantages to enhanced alertness. The colours of spring are vivid, and gratefulness for all the small things is intense. The wind feels cleansing, the rain like a cold drink. We are more thoughtful. We can love more and care more and appreciate more.

But we do not need to be told to feel this, as if we are lounging in a stupor at home, enjoying some sort of extended lazy bank holiday. We are already on guard, wary, vigilant. Wide awake.

Stay alert? Mr Johnson, I am so alert it hurts.

#17. Telling tales

Part of my ritual these days is listening to Radio 4’s PM and the daily pandemic briefing. Probably not the most healthy strand of my coping mechanisms, but at least it keeps the anxiety to one part of the day; an indulgence of bafflement, sorrow and usually anger while I make the supper. It’s also a way of trying to track the story of what’s happening to all of us – or at least the version we’re meant to hear.

Sometimes the story spin is so thinly disguised it would be funny: if it wasn’t. Matt Hancock’s proclamation this evening that the NHS is to ‘help create life’ again by reopening fertility services made me look up from my potatoes. Think about babies, o masses (not suspended cancer screening and urgent treatment backlogs).

There are lots of stories you can tell about numbers. Especially test numbers, death rate comparisons and our new friend, ‘R’. Like the best tales, it’s all about context. I’m also trying to put the Covid-19 death toll in some kind of personal context: currently about four and a half Kinrosses.

Other stories are clearly dangerous. At least the latest tale of toxic quack from America’s non-funny funnyman seems to be the first which is actually damaging his own ratings, not just geopolitical relations/minority communities/women/etc.

There’s been a fair amount of tale-telling here at home, too. Quite often this week the ‘we don’t want to hear that – sort it out yourselves’ kind. But the children have also set up detailed imaginative games involving home-loving self-distancing soft toys and are in the process of making a complicated film about three people shipwrecked on a raft, with a mother lost a sea. We don’t need Freud for that one.

#16. The art of survival

Last Thursday we clapped for the NHS and key workers, like the other Thursdays.

Our first clap was awkward, partly because even when lying ill in bed I’m naturally suspicious of government-imposed ritual, and partly because my husband wasn’t sure when it was ok to stop. Clap two was a sort of prayer of thanks that I was strong enough to stand at the window. Clap three (or was it four by then?) we stood at the front door, cheerily waving to people across the street; relieved that neighbours we hadn’t seen for a few days were hale and hearty and banging frying pans with wooden spoons in an air of celebration.

Last week the children went full immersion; dancing in the front garden with saucepans on heads and kid-size bells and shakers raided from the ‘musical instruments’ box. Noisy, discordant – but joy-filled.

I’m still suspicious of the intention of government-controlled spontaneous expression and even more suspicious of the lay people who take it upon themselves to police it (did you clap loudly enough?), but I’ve come to see this particular weekly moment as something communities have reclaimed, made – if not beautiful – our own.

Frontline workers I’ve spoken to about this seem, at best, mildly pleased to have their public sacrifice publicly acknowledged, at worst a bit sickened by this sudden outpouring of misguided (or long overdue?) thanks. All would swap it in an instant for the PPE that might stop them dying. Clapping gratitude doesn’t do anything for our doctors and nurses and lorry drivers and carers and shelf-stackers. But maybe that’s no longer the point? Maybe it’s doing something for the rest of us.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of art and artists in the last couple of weeks. Sometimes: ‘this is important’; mostly: ‘how can I even be thinking about this?’. I know lots of creative people are floundering; wondering where to fit in, what can be done. Artists are not key workers. And of course neither should they be; we are in food-shelter-medicine survival mode.

All I know is that as humans, we’re hard-wired for art. We tell stories, make music, choose words, create paintings and photos and memes that somehow manage to express something about our most complicated thoughts and emotions. We’re drawn to what we find beautiful and take it in as a new part of ourselves. Art is a common language.

Right now art is entertainment, distraction, a way of seeking goodness and order in disaster. It’s a way of bringing us together, giving us a collective voice, reflecting our experiences and celebrating the heroes.

Later, we will need artists who can find the right words to remember the loved ones. We’ll need art that mourns for everything we’ve lost, processes pain, shouts truth to power in a way that can’t be ignored or clapped over. I hope we’ll also need artists as visionaries, to carry us along in positive change, meaningful connections, a more joyful future.

Tonight’s community art-happening might only be as beautiful as the musical instrument box allows, but we’ll put our hearts into it.

#15. In an instant

And just like that, Coronavirus steps closer.

My grandfather, John Brown, died in hospital in the early hours of Monday, having been admitted on Easter Sunday with Covid-19 symptoms. He was 93 and ready to be done with life after the last few years living with dementia in nursing homes, and I am grateful that in the end his body did not take long to die. But he was real, individual, himself, unique – like all the others.

I would not normally write about this, or share news of a family death on social media. It feels something private; part of the inevitable churning of generations and the story of our family; and we need to say goodbye because we knew him and he was part of us.

But this time is not normal. We can’t hug each other, and although he wasn’t keen on funerals anyway, we can’t yet have the family gathering that would have been more up his street. John’s death is also part of this other story. Having begun, I feel an urge to carry on writing about our journey through this time, if only to help make some sort of sense of it sometime in the future. I think John would approve.

Grandfather John was the gentlest man I have known, a soother and healer who always smelt pleasantly of TCP. He was intelligent, incredibly well-read, intensely practical and lived out his belief in work – work that uses your talents and skills and makes the world better. His partnership with Sonia, which lasted the greatest part of both their lives was, and is, the foundation of my understanding of truly equal relationships and the basis of our approach to family life. He told stories and wrote, sharing details with us so that they wouldn’t be forgotten and so that he and Sonia would live forever in our family tapestry. He couldn’t believe in God, but believed so deeply in people; in a restless, enquiring, generous, creative way; that I think he saw more of God than most of us do.

Michael John Anthony Brown, 1927-2020

#14. Kite flying

It’s taken a long time to write this update. At the beginning of the week, still recovering, my thinking was muffled and mainly focused on getting through to bedtime. Now I feel physically pretty fine – but still, catching any kind of coherent thought is a woolly mission.

This post was originally going to be a list of things we’ve found out during a month of lockdown (to include: stress really does make hair grey; we don’t need so many shoes; the children like pilchards; Italy was not overreacting; to a small child, ‘PPE’ sounds a lot like ‘pee pee’) but everybody is making new discoveries right now and I’m sure you’d agree that ours are not particularly remarkable.

We’ve settled back into unremarkable isolation. Apart from occasional high-tension trips to the supermarket which require a sort of emotional debrief to go with the hand washing afterwards, we are mostly happily self-contained. The dramas and high-pitched screaming are mostly outweighed by funny ideas and cuddles. We miss our family and friends like mad, but it shows how much we love them. We swap flowers with the neighbours. The sun shines. We seem to quite like each other. I am acutely aware that all these things are just not the case for many, many families, and I am grateful.

I’m not sure if it’s the dulling woolliness of having been ill or the formidable adaptability of human nature, but we’ve found our strange new normal. Most of the time we easily separate the horrors of what’s happening out in the world from the daily decisions about pilchards and screen time. I can have an abstract discussion about Covid-19’s devastating and disproportionate impact on black Americans and what that shows us about inequality, or about how Emily Maitlis’ scathing correction on Coronavirus as a ‘great leveller’ was spot on, but I’m no longer sure how it relates to us, here. As commentary turns, surely prematurely, to exit strategies (horrible phrase) and getting economies back on track, I’m losing my understanding of the UK’s virus death toll as a number that relates to real people, real grieving families. That scares me.

Today we flew kites on the empty playing field behind our house. Excellent socially-distanced activity, especially in gusty wind (you can’t get too close in case the wind drops, the kite bombs and the line slices your ear off), although my husband pointed out that for it to officially count as exercise we should also have been constantly jogging on the spot. It was simple and glorious, though. Watching the bright kites dipping and diving against the blue sky I felt fresh and clear for the first time this week.

And I think that’s why it’s hard to wrangle the woolliness at the moment: there’s so much that is good and simple and beautiful about day-to-day life for us right now, and for many people, and for our planet. Now that’s rediscovered I don’t want to lose it. But there’s so much individual and collective sadness and hurt and brokenness that’s being laid bare too, and there are now even fewer excuses to ignore it. We’ll have to fight to find a path that embraces both.

#13. Ship’s log

It is 27 days since we arrived in Italy, 23 since we left and started isolating at home. But who’s really counting? We’ve entered a time warp.

The boys’ hair is rapidly developing 90s curtains. A couple more weeks and we’ll be at 80s mullets; travel further and we’ll be deep 70s shag. I am way back already, with hair in the realms of Miss Havisham.

I’ve lost a week to the virus/post-viral infection combo. It got a bit dark before I started to recover. I’m grateful to have been able to manage at home though, with practical and emotional support from family and friends, as well as our truly amazing NHS workers. Thank you to my husband for steering the ship. Two types of antibiotics, a lot of paracetamol and feverish sweating later, and if you were still in any doubt, I can confirm this is not a virus you want your loved ones to get.

I’ve tried not to play the ‘what would we be doing now’ game – the log was wiped when we came back from Rome. Today it’s unavoidable though: publication day for my first book.

The celebratory picnic with bubbles, readings, arts events and book festivals are of course on hold. I’m not quite recovered for a live online event (need to do something about my hair), but that will come. And anyway, instead of urgent, busy promotion, perhaps the style of our times is gently seeking out an audience, making connections that mean something.

Oddly, as it was written nearly two years ago, Molly’s Circus is a picture book set entirely in a house and garden, about how a child’s imagination effortlessly soars to transform the mundane.

#12. What. A. Week.

We’re over two weeks in isolation, and this one has been long, and hard. We’ve unravelled at a pretty steady pace.

There have been highlights. These have included our youngest’s fifth birthday (fish and chips, lovely messages, sugar, Lego, balloons), binge-watching Mallory Towers (necessary, but good), a sibling catch-up with wine over Zoom and an abundance of coconut-scented toilet roll.

There have also been lows. Cabin fever has arrived. We (and the house) look ragged. There have been tears. We ran out of bread. Any semblance of idyllic home learning has (temporarily, hopefully) been abandoned and I am on bed rest and antibiotics for the chest infection Covid-19 left behind.

Having been almost completely better, I quite quickly began to feel bad on Wednesday afternoon. After a two and a half hour wait on the NHS 111 number a very kind GP prescribed high dose antibiotics, to be started ASAP. As the only adult family member not still in isolation I had a surreal drive down the almost empty motorway to collect them (a convoluted process involving more tears). It was dark, misty and the orange electronic signs that usually say cheery things about taking a break, now starkly flash ‘Covid-19. Essential travel only’.

Apart from several hours on the sofa for Mallory Towers, I have been in bed since then, trying not to think about things too much, trying to get better and distracting myself by gearing up for a corona-special book launch at the end of next week.

I think the antibiotics are working. I don’t feel very much better; but I’m also not worse. Which for this week feels pretty good.